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US coal plant closure emphasises health benefits of cleaner air

Oct 21, 2023

Decrease in hospital visits for heart problems shows impact could be greater than previously thought

A study suggests the benefits from cleaner air could be even greater than previous data had indicated.

Researchers investigated the closure of a coal processing plant in 2016. Located on Neville Island in the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh in the US, the site had been used to produce coal-coke for steelmaking for about 100 years. Closure of the plant resulted in an immediate reduction in air pollution for the local communities. Sulphur dioxide decreased by 90%, arsenic by 66% and particle pollution also improved.

There was an immediate 42% decrease in emergency room visits for heart problems and further declines in the three years that followed, until the end of study, showing that the closure led to long-term health improvements. A similar pattern was seen in stroke cases. These changes were not seen in two communities away from the plant that were used as experimental controls.

When looking at medical statistics it is possible to overlook the real-world experience of the people affected. Testimony from the local community reveals what it was like to live with the air pollution, dust and odour from the plant. Some people explained how they struggled to manage their asthma and others said their breathing problems got worse when they first moved into the area. It was routine to close windows at night as pollution settled over the community.

Air pollution is often invisible in our everyday lives. Reminiscent of the Covid lockdowns, the plant closure brought immediate changes, with people suddenly noticing crystal-blue skies, instead of haze, and the smells of nature along with improvements to their health.

Prof George Thurston, of New York University Grossman School of Medicine, who led the study said: “We found much larger cardiac health benefits from the plant’s closure than expected. This provides solid confirmation that fossil fuel-related air pollution is far more toxic than other types of air pollution. Policymakers have been greatly underestimating the local and immediate human health benefits that will occur as we phase out fossil fuel processing and combustion in our cities and towns.”

Prof Dan Greenbaum, of the US Health Effects Institute, who was not involved in the Pittsburgh study, said: “This type of study is one of the best ways to test whether exposure to air pollution actually causes ill health. Simply put, if you reduce the air pollution someone is breathing, can you measure improved health? That clearly is the case for the citizens near Pittsburgh.”

Policies to improve air pollution are often gradual and can lack the ambition to make big changes that occurred near Pittsburgh. This makes it harder to detect the health benefits.

Despite this, a 17% reduction in deaths from breathing problems followed a ban on the sale of smokey types of coal in Dublin in 1990. In Launceston, Tasmania, a scheme to incentivise homeowners to switch away from wood heating reduced winter respiratory deaths by 28% and heart deaths by 20%, and improvements in air pollution in Sweden were found to help children’s lung growth.

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Five out of eight studies of low emission zones (LEZs) found a clear reduction in heart and circulatory problems. These included fewer admissions to hospital, fewer deaths from heart attacks and strokes, and fewer people with blood pressure problems. One of the German studies that analysed hospital data from 69 cities with LEZs found a 2-3% reduction in heart problems and 7-12% reduction in stroke. These improvements were greatest for older people and resulted in estimated health cost savings of €4.4bn (£3.8bn).

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