The closure of coal-fired power stations has been linked to dramatic declines in asthma cases and hospitalisations, new research has found.
In a paper published in the journal Nature Energy, health researchers based in the United States found that asthma attacks and asthma-related emergency department visits in communities nearby coal-fired power stations fell in the years after those power stations closed.
The researchers were able to study the impacts of the closures of four coal-fired power stations located in the US region of Louisville, Kentucky, where the power stations were either closed altogether, transitioned to using gas, or had strict sulphur dioxide emissions controls installed.
Sulphur dioxide is a leading trigger of asthma attacks, and other respiratory symptoms, including those that may lead to hospitalisation, and is produced from the burning of coal. Without a means to remove sulphur dioxide from coal power station exhaust, it can be released into the atmosphere and impacts upon surrounding communities.
The researchers said they had an opportunity to study a “natural experiment” when the four Louisville coal-fired power plants either closed or transitioned between 2013 and 2016.
The researchers were able to compare the rates of asthma inhaler use, and respiratory related hospitalisations in the surrounding Jefferson County, home to more than 700,000 people and host to the four power stations studied.
In the month immediately following a major cut in sulphur dioxide pollution caused by a coal-fired power station, the nearby community reported a 17 per cent reduction in monthly average use of asthma inhalers. The improvement continued to grow in subsequent months, with a further 2 per cent fall in inhaler use on an almost ongoing basis.
“This study was unique in its ability to measure asthma morbidity based on both hospitalisations and daily symptoms, and to leverage an abrupt change in environmental exposure to more directly attribute changes in asthma exacerbation to changes in coal-fired power plant emissions,” report lead author and assistant professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health Joan Casey said.
For the participants studied who were highly reliant on inhaler use, an even greater improvement was recorded, with an average 32 per cent reduction in monthly inhaler use.
On a postcode wide basis, the study observed a significant drop in hospitalisations for major asthma attacks. In Louisville’s Jefferson County, which was host to the four power stations closed, the researchers estimated that there were as many as 400 fewer hospitalisations each year related to power station triggered asthma attacks.
“We hope this evidence will encourage government officials to support stricter standards when regulating coal-fired power plants and encourage us towards cleaner power options, thereby protecting the health of the people who live near these facilities,” study co-author and researcher for Propeller Health, Meredith Barrett, said.
The results mirror similar studies that have been undertaken in Australia. Coal-heavy regions like the Latrobe Valley in Victoria and the Hunter Region in New South Wales rank as two global hotspots for sulphur dioxide emissions.
Despite the benefits of placing controls in polluting emissions from coal fired power stations, the Trump administration has worked to relax these controls, winding back the powers of the US Environmental Protection Agency, as President Donald Trump works to prop-up the US coal industry.
In March, the Trump Administration announced that it would halt the enforcement of federal environmental laws altogether during the period of disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
“Our results come as the US EPA has suspended enforcement of environmental laws during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers said.
“The US has stark environmental inequities, with poorer communities and communities of colour facing a disproportionate burden of air pollution as well as elevated rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Members of these communities appear at greatest risk of COVID-19 infection and death. In a time of need the US EPA has stopped protecting those who need it most.”
There is a growing body of research that suggests that an accelerated phase-out of thermal coal use would be better in the long run for the global economy, particularly driven by the resulting health benefits.
An International Monetary Fund study found that global fossil fuel subsidies have topped more than $5.2 trillion per year. The largest source of fossil fuel subsidy is un-priced, or under-priced, air pollution that is caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
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