In 2012, a city in the United States made the bold decision to excavate one of their dusty old coal-fired power plants and bring strict emission controls. The study, led by environmental health scientists at Columbia University, looked at how the city’s efforts to sever ties with coal affected respiratory health in Louisville, Kentucky. Between 2013 and 2016, the gas-and-electric coal-fired Can Run Generating Station in Louisville was shut down and demolished, and three more coal plants installed “sulfur dioxide scrubbers” in their smokestacks. By the spring of 2015, the changes had already led to a 55 percent reduction in the number of air pollutants in the sky in Louisville.
In just four years, the number of people admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack and the number of people needed to go to the emergency room has dropped dramatically, while many residents with asthma start using their inhalers significantly less within a few months. The results of their study were published this week in the journal Nature Energy.
The impact on human respiratory health was rapid and profound. Within a few years, researchers calculated that about 400 hospital admissions and emergency rooms in the Louisville neighborhood had been avoided after air pollution was cut. People also start using their inhalers less after cleaning coal plants. In the month following the installation of the sulfur dioxide scrubber at the Mill Creek plant in 2016, researchers found a 17 percent reduction in inhaler use by asthma patients.
Louisville has had infamous air quality over the past decades, with substantial health inequalities among neighbors. So, when the city decided to clear this law, it gave scientists an ideal opportunity to see how reducing air pollution harms human health in the real world. Known as AIR Lewisville, the project uses multiple innovative techniques, including crowdsourcing and new technologies, such as electronic inhaler sensors integrated into smartphone applications, combined with data collected from hospitals using Jefferson County zip codes and air-quality monitors.
Greg Fischer, the Mayor of Louisville, said in a statement, “AIR Louisville has brought together local government, government and non-government partners and residents for a common mission: to make our city more developed and more resilient, to generate local information.” “We are still looking at the results of AIR Louisville in this study, which demonstrates the public health impact of retiring coal as an energy source or controlling more coal-based emissions.”
Meredith Barrett, study author and head of population health research for Propeller Health added, “We hope that this evidence will encourage government officials to support stricter standards when controlling coal-fired power plants and encourage us to move towards cleaner cleaning options, thereby protecting the health of people living near these facilities.”