Coal fly ash (CFA) is a significant environmental pollutant that presents a respiratory hazard when airborne. Although previous studies have identified the mineral components of CFA, there is a paucity of information on the structural habits of these minerals. Samples from UK, Polish and Chinese power stations were studied to further our understanding of the factors that affect CFA geochemistry and mineralogy. ICP-MS, FE-SEM/EDX, XRD, and laser diffraction were used to study physicochemical characteristics. Analysis revealed important differences in the elemental compositions and particle size distributions of samples between sites. Microscopy of HF acid-etched CFA revealed the mullite present possesses a fibrous habit; fibres ranged in length between 1 and 10 μm. Respirable particles (<10 μm) were frequently observed to contain fibrous mullite. We propose that the biopersistence of these refractory fibres in the lung environment could be contributing towards chronic lung diseases seen in communities and individuals continually exposed to high levels of CFA. Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.