When emissions decrease, people’s asthma gets better

Air pollution has long been linked to respiratory problems, particularly asthma. Thus, it came as small surprise that a new study published in the journal Nature Energy by Columbia University, Harvard, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, Propeller Health, and others, shows just that.

In 2012, the city of Louisville, Kentucky, partnered with Propeller Health for a pilot called AIR Louisville, which enrolled city residents in a program to use Propeller’s sensor-enabled inhalers to gather data that allowed them to understand how local air quality impacts respiratory disease.

Between 2013 and 2016, four coal-fired power plants in Louisville were either converted to other fuel sources or had sulfur dioxide scrubbers installed to control emissions. When that happened, the study revealed that asthma-related hospitalizations and ER visits dropped, and individuals ended up using their rescue inhalers less frequently.

In 2015, when three of the four coal-fired plants changed their operations, the researchers saw a 55 percent drop in coal-related emissions in the area, which resulted in about three fewer asthma-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits per Jefferson County zip code, per quarter the following year. That means about 400 avoided hospitalizations and ED visits each year.

The sulfur dioxide scrubbers were associated with a 17 percent drop in monthly average rescue inhaler use compared to before they were installed, according to data gathered from the Propeller Health sensors.

“I hope it encourages people to stay the course, to continue installing emissions controls or potentially consider transitioning away from coal altogether to either natural gas or renewable energy sources that are far less polluting for our air,” said Joan Casey, lead author of the paper.

“We hope the evidence will encourage government officials to support stricter standards when regulating coal-fired power plants and encourage us toward cleaner power options, thereby protecting the health of the people who live near these facilities,” said study author Meredith Barrett, Ph.D, head of population health research for Propeller Health.

This study brings science to vast quantities of anecdotal evidence about the impact an abrupt drop in coal-related emissions can have on population health.

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