Closure of US coal-processing plant provided immediate health benefits to local community

A new natural experiment has examined the change in emergency department visits and hospitalisations for cardiovascular diseases following the closure of one of Pittsburgh’s biggest and most polluting coal-processing plants.

During its 50 years, the Shenango Coke Works facility had been fined millions of dollars for air and water pollution, before the local community finally forced its closure. Pittsburgh as a whole is ranked as one of the cities with highest levels of air pollution and most air-pollution related deaths in the United States.

The study, undertaken by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, was designed to assess the short and longer-term health effects of the shutdown.

Following the plant’s closure, government air-monitoring stations close to the plant showed a 90% fall in average daily levels of SO2 – a by-product of coke-making – and 50% fall in SO2 at an air-monitoring station six miles away. Arsenic in PMs, another coal-combustion by-product that can be inhaled, fell by 66%.

The most striking of the team’s findings was that immediately after the shutdown, average weekly visits to the local emergency departments for heart-related problems decreased by 42% .

The researchers used data from hospital health records and restricted their analysis to patients from ZIP codes immediately surrounding the Shenango plant itself, a US Steel plant in Clairton (below) which is still operating, and at a government air-monitoring station in Johnston, where there has never been a comparable air quality problem.

In the longer term, there were 33 fewer average yearly hospitalisations for heart disease between 2016 and 2018 compared to the three years preceding the plant closure. This included 13 fewer average yearly hospitalizations for heart attack and 12 fewer for strokes.

Senior study investigator George Thurston, a professor in the Departments of Medicine and Population Health at NYU Langone said: ‘The immediate and long-term benefits from dramatic reductions in exposure to air pollution are also analogous to the steady reductions in illness and disease that have been observed over time following smoking cessation.

‘Our analysis adds to the growing body of scientific evidence that policies implemented to regulate and reduce fossil fuel-related air pollution have real public health benefit’

Wuyue Yu, a doctoral science student at NYU Langone Health said: ‘Our research provides compelling scientific evidence that the closure of this coal-processing coke plant significantly eliminated fossil fuel-related air pollution emissions that improved the air quality and cardiovascular health of nearby residents.’


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