Back in 2012, a city in the US took the bold decision to ditch one of their dusty old coal-fired power plants and bring in tougher emissions controls. Research led by environmental health scientists at Columbia University looked to see how respiratory health in Louisville, Kentucky, was impacted by the city’s efforts to cut its ties to coal.
Between 2013 and 2016, the Louisville Gas and Electric's coal-fired Cane Run Generating Station was shut down and demolished, while three other coal plants installed “sulfur dioxide scrubbers” to their smokestacks. By the spring of 2015, the changes had already brought around a 55 percent reduction in the number of air pollutants in the skies over Louisville.
Within just four years, the number of people requiring hospitalizations and emergency room visits for asthma attacks was slashed dramatically, while many residents with asthma started using their inhalers considerably less within a matter of months. The results of their study were published in the journal Nature Energy this week.
The effect on peoples' respiratory health was swift and profound. Within a matter of years, the researchers calculated that around 400 hospital admissions and emergency room visits asthma attacks in Louisville were avoided following the air pollution cuts. Individuals also started using their inhalers less after the coal plants cleaned up. In the month following the installation of sulfur dioxide scrubbers at the Mill Creek plant in 2016, for example, the researchers saw a 17 percent drop in inhaler use by asthma patients.
Louisville had infamously poor air quality in previous decades, along with a fair amount of health disparities between neighborhoods. So, when the city decided to clean up its act, it presented scientists with an ideal opportunity to see how decreases in air pollution affect human health in the real world as it happens. Known as AIR Louisville, the project used a bunch of novel techniques, including crowdsourcing and new technology like electronic inhaler sensors linked to smartphone apps, combined with data collected from hospitals with the Jefferson County ZIP code and air-quality monitors.
“AIR Louisville brought together local government, public and private partners and residents for a common mission: to leverage local data to make our city better and more breathable,” Greg Fischer, the Mayor of Louisville, said in a statement. “We are still seeing the results of AIR Louisville in this research, which demonstrates the public health impact of retiring coal as an energy source or further controlling coal-fired emissions.”
“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,” added Meredith Barrett, PhD, study author and head of population health research for Propeller Health.