Press Releases

2001 Releases

Study Details Impact of Pollution on Public Health from Nine Older Fossil Fuel Power Plants in Illinois

For immediate release: January 03, 2001

Boston, MA -- Air pollution from nine older coal-burning power plants in Illinois contributes to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide exposure over a large region. Using a state-of-the-art computer model that shows how weather patterns disperse the material, Harvard School of Public Health environmental scientists John Spengler and Jonathan Levy estimated the impact of the nine power plants on air pollution levels and health in sections of nine Midwestern states. 

Citing evidence from studies of the health effects of air pollution, Spengler and Levy were able to estimate that current emissions contribute an annual extra risk of 300 premature deaths, 14,000 asthma attacks, and over 400,000 daily incidents of upper respiratory symptoms among the 33 million people living within 250 miles of the geographic center of the plants. 

They found that applying existing emission control technology to the older plants could reduce the annual mortality risk by approximately 200 premature deaths per year, along with 2,000 fewer emergency room visits, 10,000 fewer asthma attacks and 300,000 fewer daily incidents of upper respiratory problems. They also determined that recent fuel switching and emission controls adopted by a subset of the power plants reduced the mortality risk between 1998 and 2000 by 80 premature deaths per year.

The health risks are generally greatest for those living closer to the plants. Some 37 percent of the estimated health risks associated with the plants’ pollution is concentrated on the 16 percent of the study population that lives in Cook County. Exposures from the nine plants are greatest near Chicago. Those individuals with pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory disease in that city represent a special high-risk group within the study. 

The nine power plants studied - located in Chicago, Joliet, Waukegan, Pekin, Hennepin, Bartonville and Romeoville – are each more than a quarter-century old. Their operation has been "grandfathered in" and exempts them from the strict emission standards applied to newer plants. Lower emission levels from the plants could be reached by using the best available control technologies for newer power plants as required by the 1990 Clean Air Act and by the EPA as retrofits to older plants. These improvements might include burning cleaner, lower sulfur fuels, equipping plants with air cleaning devices, substituting alternative fuels, and aggressive energy conservation programs. 

This study demonstrates a method to quantify the societal benefits of cleaning up older, exempt power plants in any community and can be used to help select policies that most cost-effectively improve the public health. 

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health continue to develop the tools to evaluate the health risks of air pollution to help society address complex policy issues. The methodology in this study has been used in ongoing efforts to determine air pollution control strategies in China and Mexico City and to evaluate the benefits of energy conservation. Together with advances in the scientific understanding of the effects of particles and other pollutants studied at HSPH, this approach can be used to set priorities and cost-effectively improve the public health.

The report, "Estimated Public Health Impacts of Criteria Pollutant Air Emissions from Nine Fossil-Fueled Power Plants in Illinois," was prepared for the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit organization focusing on air quality, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. 

The report was peer-reviewed by a panel of air pollution and health experts and is available upon request from the Harvard School of Public Health.

See also: HSPH Report Quantifies Health Impact of Air Pollution From Two Massachusetts Power Plants -- press release of May 4, 2000.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752