Study Finds Significant Health Benefits When Air Pollution is Reduced

The research found specific regulations could cut 3,500 air pollution-related deaths a year.

Discussions about cutting carbon emissions often focus on environmental and climate change benefits. But a new study from researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), Harvard, and Syracuse University found that certain models for reducing carbon pollution from power plants could also have significant public health benefits.

“As you control carbon pollution, you can control other pollutants that contribute to local air quality, and we wanted to understand the benefits for local air quality and the benefits for public health above and beyond the climate benefits that one would see,” says the study’s co-author Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at BUSPH. “One of the reasons why we did this study was to raise awareness that this is not just a climate story, not just a local air pollution story, it’s really about both, and that both have important pathways to health.”

The study modeled the theoretical results of three potential carbon reduction strategies, ranging in terms of stringency and state-level flexibility. Notably, Levy says the plan that seemed to be the most successful was not the most stringent, but instead it’s strict in reduction standards while also giving states a lot of flexibility.

“When you’re addressing carbon pollution to deal with climate change, you’re also addressing other pollutants that tend to travel along with it. That includes things like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, things that contribute to smog and soot in the atmosphere,” Levy says. “These pollutants have large and known public health impacts for respiratory health and for cardiovascular health.”

Luckily, the model that Levy and his fellow researchers found to be most effective in reducing those health risks is also the most similar to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Clean Power Plan, a policy aimed at reducing carbon pollution nationwide that will be finalized by June 2015. Levy says that projections suggest that by the year 2020 this policy could improve air quality enough to save an estimated 3,500 lives in the U.S. each year, reduce heart- and lung-related hospitalizations, and lowering the numbers of heart attacks.

Levy says that’s important, since the study proved all carbon reduction plans are not made equal. “Hopefully these policies are constructed in a way that tries to maximize the public health benefit, because, again, we found that you could obtain the same amount of carbon pollution reduction, the same amount of climate benefits, but have large difference in the public health benefit that would arise,” he says.

Levy says that while assessing climate change capability is important, the bottom line is that it’s not the only factor to consider when regulating power plants. “You can’t take the health benefit of these policy measures for granted,” he says. “There are elements of the design that could lead from anything from zero benefit to thousands of lives saved.”