Credit: Mark Dumont / Creative Commons

The longer Ohio waits to cut air emissions from power plants, the more adverse illnesses it can expect for its citizens, say health and environmental advocates.

Members of Moms Clean Air Force and Environment Ohio gathered in Dublin, Ohio, on February 19 to show support for the Clean Power Plan and call for improvements in Ohio’s air quality.

That same day, Ohio and about 20 other states joined with large coal companies and electric utilities to file their joint brief urging a federal court to invalidate those rules.

‘Seeing real changes’

Speakers at the February 19 program in Columbus included Richard Hicks of the Columbus Public Health Department, Laura Burns of Moms Clean Air Force, Matt Keyes from the office of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Benjamin Kopp, a pediatric physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and associate professor at The Ohio State University in Columbus.

Renewed emphasis on the health costs of emissions from power plants comes in the wake of an announcement earlier in February that air pollution is now the fourth leading cause of death worldwide.

A majority of 2013’s 5.5 million early deaths from air pollution occurred in China and India. Nonetheless, pollution remains a serious concern for Ohio, Kopp later told Midwest Energy News.

“We’re seeing real changes here as well,” stressed Kopp. “We have to look at our states and our own rates of illness and environmental stresses that are causing problems.”

An analysis prepared last summer found that resuming Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards next year could help avoid 2,820 premature deaths, 4,470 heart attacks and 44,390 asthma attacks between 2017 and 2029.

But benefits foregone could also be viewed as costs imposed on the public.

“If we have the evidence that cleaning up the standards will protect society, then I think it is fair to think we are putting on more burdens that can be preventable,” Kopp said.

Power plants of different kinds emit a variety of pollutants. Particulates can lead to a variety of circulatory and respiratory diseases. “If your body can’t filter them, they’re going to stay in the airways,” Kopp explained.

Ozone levels can also be worsened by emissions from power plants. And the number of days when there will be poor air quality is expected to increase as temperatures rise.

Ozone and other pollutants have been linked to a variety of health issues, including increases in asthma attacks.

“Any time you start having respiratory problems with breathing, that’s your life right there,” Kopp said. “Any asthma attack can be potentially threatening.”

Climate change has additional consequences as well, Kopp noted. Children are especially susceptible to health problems linked to high heat or extreme cold. “Their immune systems and their bodies are less adaptable to those stresses,” Kopp explained.

Allergy cases are also likely to rise and worsen. “The average annual pollen counts have increased a tremendous amount,” — roughly 40 percent over the last decade, Kopp noted.

“Down the line, climate change will lead to more infectious diseases spreading toward the Midwest that previously weren’t up here,” Kopp added.

A ‘dubious distinction’

“Ohio currently boasts the dubious distinction of ranking second worst in the nation when it comes to exposing residents to toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, emitting more than 36.4 million pounds of harmful chemicals,” said Ellen Eilers, a community organizer for Moms Clean Air Force.

“A changing climate will trigger more asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses and other serious health effects,” she continued. “Children will disproportionately bear the burden of these health problems.”

Health impacts were one of the factors the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took into account in its cost-benefit analysis for the Clean Power Plan.

In addition to long-term cuts in energy costs and other benefits, the EPA estimates that for every $1 spent for compliance under the plan, Americans will get back about $7 in health benefits.

Opponents of the Clean Power Plan have argued that including all health benefits from reduced emissions is improper, but the agency maintains that’s entirely appropriate in any cost-benefit analysis.

“I think it’s really important from a policy perspective that you look at the cumulative impacts of a rule and a regulation,” EPA environmental scientist Terry Keating said recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. “We’ve been required to do that legally and through the courts — to look more broadly.”

Moreover, he said, agency estimates of health benefits are conservative. “We only rely on benefits that we can quantify,” Keating said. “So those benefit numbers are usually low estimates, not maximum estimates.”

On February 9, the Supreme Court stayed enforcement of the Clean Power Plan while litigation challenging it is pending. Some states have said they will nonetheless continue initial work to develop plans to implement the rules.

Ohio is fighting against the rules in federal court but the state remains officially on the fence as to what it will do as the case proceeds. “We are still evaluating what, if anything, we will do,” said Heidi Griesmer at Ohio EPA.

“Smart states know that delaying implementation of these critical standards will cause hundreds of thousands of children to suffer asthma attacks and millions of adults to lose work days due to respiratory illnesses,” said Eilers.

In any case, Kopp said, health problems from power plant emissions and climate change remain a serious concern that Ohio should take seriously.

“We have a duty to look after the public health of our state,” Kopp stressed. “If we know of dangers, it’s negligent to just look past those.”


Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.