The Health Benefits of Cleaner Air: Impact of US Coal Plant Closure

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The closure of a coal processing plant in the US has shed light on the remarkable health benefits of cleaner air. A recent study conducted on the plant’s closure and its impact on local communities revealed that the benefits of cleaner air could be more substantial than previously estimated. This article delves into the study’s findings, highlighting the immediate and long-term health improvements experienced by the affected communities. It emphasizes the significance of reducing fossil fuel-related air pollution and the importance of ambitious policies to achieve cleaner air and improved public health.

The Impact of Coal Plant Closure:

In 2016, a coal processing plant located on Neville Island in the Ohio River, near Pittsburgh, ceased operations after being used for coal-coke production for nearly a century. The closure resulted in a significant reduction in air pollution for the local communities. Sulphur dioxide levels decreased by 90%, arsenic by 66%, and particle pollution also showed improvement. These changes had a profound effect on the health of the residents.

Reduced Hospital Visits for Heart Problems:

One of the most striking findings of the study was the immediate 42% decrease in emergency room visits for heart problems following the closure of the coal plant. This decline continued over the subsequent three years, demonstrating the long-term health improvements resulting from the closure. Similar patterns were observed in stroke cases. Notably, the control communities located away from the plant did not experience these changes, highlighting the direct impact of the coal plant closure on public health.

Real-World Experiences:

While medical statistics provide valuable insights, the real-world experiences of those affected by air pollution are equally important. Testimony from the local community revealed the struggles they faced living with the pollution, including difficulties managing asthma and worsened respiratory problems. Residents described the routine practice of closing windows at night due to pollution settling over the area. The closure of the coal plant brought immediate changes, with residents noticing crystal-clear skies, the scents of nature, and improvements in their overall health.

The Toxicity of Fossil Fuel-Related Air Pollution:

The study’s lead researcher, Prof George Thurston of New York University Grossman School of Medicine, emphasized that the health benefits observed from the coal plant’s closure provide solid confirmation that fossil fuel-related air pollution is particularly toxic. This finding underscores the need for policymakers to recognize the underestimated local and immediate health benefits that arise from phasing out fossil fuel processing and combustion in cities and towns.

Ambitious Policies and Health Benefits:

Many policies aimed at improving air pollution tend to be gradual, making it challenging to detect significant health benefits. However, various examples demonstrate the positive impact of ambitious measures. For instance, a ban on the sale of smoky coal in Dublin resulted in a 17% reduction in deaths from respiratory problems. In Launceston, Tasmania, a scheme incentivizing homeowners to switch away from wood heating led to a 28% reduction in winter respiratory deaths and a 20% decrease in heart-related deaths. Additionally, improved air pollution in Sweden was found to enhance children’s lung growth.

The Role of Low Emission Zones (LEZs):

Studies on low emission zones (LEZs) have shown clear reductions in heart and circulatory problems. Several cities with LEZs experienced fewer hospital admissions, decreased deaths from heart attacks and strokes, and a lower prevalence of blood pressure issues. Notably, German studies analyzing hospital data from LEZ cities revealed a 2-3% reduction in heart problems and a 7-12% reduction in stroke cases. These improvements were particularly significant for older individuals and resulted in substantial estimated health cost savings.


The closure of a coal processing plant in the US has highlighted the immense health benefits of cleaner air. This study’s findings indicate that the positive impact of reducing air pollution could be even greater than previously believed. The immediate and long-term health improvements observed in the affected communities underscore the urgency of reducing fossil fuel-related air pollution and implementing ambitious policies. By prioritizing cleaner air, policymakers can improve public health, reduce healthcare costs, and create a healthier future for communities worldwide.

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