Chesapeake PSR

Fossil fuels and negative health outcomes

Climate Change and EnergyTimothy WhitehouseComment

The links between burning fossil fuels and adverse health impacts continue to grow. Four recent studies show that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would result in significant health and economic benefits for our society.

A study in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management shows fetal health improvement as a result of the 2014 closure of the Portland Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania. The study found the closure reduced the likelihood in nearby communities of having a low-birth-weight baby by about 15 percent and also reduced the likelihood of preterm birth by about 28 percent. The coal-fired power plant was ranked fifth in the United States in 2006 in sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.

Previous studies have found public health benefits of power plant emission abatement include avoidance of nonfatal heart attacks, hospital and emergency room visits, acute bronchitis, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, aggravated asthma, premature mortality and lost work days or school absences. (Muzhe Yang and Shin-Yi Chou, The Impact of Environmental Regulation on Fetal Health: Evidence from the Shutdown of a Coal-Fired Power Plant Located Upwind of New Jersey, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management,

A study by the Environmental Integrity Project found asthma hospitalization rates in the zip codes for three south Baltimore neighborhoods fell 57 percent between 2009 and 2013 – more than twice the drop citywide – after a state law compelled the nearby Brandon Shores and Wagner coal-fired power plants to install major new pollution control systems. The report also noted a very strong spatial correlation between asthma hospitalization and emergency room visits in Baltimore’s zip codes and demographic measures of poverty, particularly median household income. The power plants released 93 percent less soot (which can trigger asthma and heart attacks), 29 percent less NOx and 73 percent less SO2 following the pollution-control upgrades. (Kelly, L, Burkhart, K, Asthma and Air Pollution in Baltimore City, December 2017, available at

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that day-to-day changes in fine particles (PM2.5) and ozone ambient concentrations were significantly associated with all-cause mortality at levels well below the current daily National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). PM2.5 are particles that are  2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, that can only be seen with an electron microscope. They are produced from all types of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning and some industrial processes. Ozone is produced by a chemical reaction when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight. NOx is produced when cars and trucks, electric power plants and industrial processes burn fossil fuels. (Di Q, Dai L, Wang Y, et al. Association of short-term exposure to air pollution with mortality in older adults. JAMA, doi:101001/jama.2017.17923.)

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that exposure to airborne particulate matter with a median diameter of 1 μm or less (PM1) is associated with the risk of preterm birth in China. PM1 contributes to nearly 80 percent of PM2.5. The study of more than 1.3 million births found that increases in PM1 concentration of 10 μg/m3 during the entire pregnancy as well as at each trimester were significantly associated with an increased risk of preterm birth, and control measures to reduce PM1 air pollution may lower the future incidence of preterm birth. Particulate matter of this size can reach the lung alveoli, and have been shown to activate multiple pathophysiological processes, which may, in turn, contribute to preterm births. (Yuan-yuan Wang, et al. Association of Long-term Exposure to Airborne Particulate Matter of 1 μm or Less With Preterm Birth in China, JAMA Pediatrics, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.4872.)

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