By Rich Holmes
Their new study focused on coal-fired plants around the Louisville, Ky., area. The scientists used computer modeling to determine coal plant emission exposure by zip code, and then gathered information about area residents’ use of asthma medicine via digital sensors attached to their inhalers.
“A very solid effort,” Dr. Juanita Mora, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said of the study. She is an allergist/immunologist at Chicago Allergy Center, and was not part of the study.
Mora said that particulate pollution from fossil fuel plants affects the health of just over 21 million Americans, many of whom are poor, black and Hispanic people living close to these energy facilities. This pollution can contribute to developing respiratory disease, cancer, premature death and low-weight and early births, she said.
“In 2020, there is a respiratory pandemic,” Mora said. “Not having clean air is going to increase COVID-19 complications.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal plants nationwide have been declining as an electricity source, with 546 units decommissioned from 2010 to 2019.
Researchers were led by Joan Casey, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. They said that Kentucky historically has been among the top five states for high levels of air pollution from power plants. The study follows a 2012 project that provided inhaler sensors to more than 1,200 people with asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), both of which cause breathing difficulty.
Subsequently, one of four Louisville coal plants shut down, and the remaining three installed pollution controls to comply with federal regulations. Casey’s team looked for trends in the wake of these changes, using data from 207 participants with inhaler sensors.
The researchers found “about a 19% reduction in hospitalizations and emergency department visits” in Jefferson County, where Louisville is located, according to Casey. This translated into approximately 400 avoided visits or hospitalizations annually countywide, she said.
Inhaler use data showed the June 2016 installation of pollution controls to one plant, the area’s Mill Creek plant, was followed by an immediate and sustained 17% reduction in rescue use of inhalers, and a 32% drop in high rescue use, defined as more than four puffs a day.
“This is the first time we have hard numbers [tied] to improved health of people living nearby,” Casey said.
She noted the findings don’t prove that lowering coal plant emissions eases asthma and respiratory problems for nearby residents, but the association is strong.
The findings were published April 13 in the journal Nature Energy.
The study did not get information on individual participants, such as tobacco use, socioeconomic status or health care access. Casey said future research might look at these factors, including ethnicity, race and gender of people living near power plants, and what roles they might play in health.
“If we can do anything to improve respiratory health at this time, it would be beneficial,” Casey added.
Mora noted that Hispanics and black Americans have higher rates of asthma, and are more apt to contract COVID-19. “Are these patients having higher risk of COVID-19 because of where they live?” she asked.
The major source of the study’s funding was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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SOURCES: Juanita Mora, M.D., allergist/immunologist, Chicago Allergy Center; Joan Casey, Ph.D., assistant professor, environmental health sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York City; April 13, 2020, Nature Energy