Prove your humanity

The closure of a Pittsburgh area coke plant resulted in dramatic decreases in local air pollution and fewer emergency room visits, a new study has found.

The Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island closed in 2016

For researchers at New York University, it was an opportunity to see if reduced air pollution resulting from the closure could mean improved health for people living close by.

“It was a natural experiment,” said Wuyue Yu, an NYU Ph.D. student who was one of the study co-authors. “The only factor that has changed in their life is the closure of this complex.”

The result was clear. 

The researchers found a 90 percent drop in sulfur pollution near the plant and an immediate 42 percent decrease in emergency room visits for cardiovascular disease among nearby residents. And over three years, those ER visits dropped even further – 61 percent compared with past years. 

“For the cardiovascular effects, we see both an immediate decrease and a long-term decrease. So basically, right after the closure, we get improvement, and over time, it just keeps getting better,” Yu said. 

“(It’s) sort of similar to when somebody quits smoking,” said co-author George Thurston, professor of Environmental Medicine and Population Health at NYU’s School of Medicine.

“Immediately, they (experience) less coughing and hacking. But then over the long term, you know, their lungs get healthier.”

It’s ‘gratifying’

Coke is a key component in steelmaking. It’s made by baking coal at high temperatures. It produces a toxic mix of sulfurous gases and particle pollution, and carcinogenic air pollutants like benzene that seep out of coke plants into the broader community. 

The Shenango plant was closed by DTE Energy after years of protest from neighboring communities. Among those who fought it was Angelo Taranto, who co-founded Allegheny County Clean Air Now. Taranto, formerly of the nearby borough of Emsworth.

Taranto said he had seen people moving into the community from elsewhere develop respiratory ailments like asthma and blame the coke plant. But plant officials, and occasionally county officials, would say that the plant could not be having a substantial health effect, he says. 

“This kind of adds to the evidence that the coke works was substantially harming the health of residents in the…communities adjacent to Neville Island,” Taranto said. “We feel (it’s) really gratifying to get this verification of what we felt.”

Life Smells Better After Shenango


How this could impact the Clairton Coke Works

James Fabisiak, associate professor of environmental & occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, said he thought the Allegheny County Health Department should use the study to examine how it treats other big emitters in the county. 

U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke plant in North America, remains by far the largest polluter of fine particulate matter in Allegheny County. According to state data, Clairton coke works accounts for 50 percent of the county’s stationary particulate matter emissions. 

“I would think this study provides ample reason for ACHD to incorporate the evidence into a re-evaluation of its policies regarding similar facilities that continue to operate in the county,” said Fabisiak, who was not involved in the study, in an email. “The Clean Air Act makes clear (its) provision to protect sensitive sub-populations, which include those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease.”

Neil Ruhland, an Allegheny County Health Department spokesman, said the department’s air quality program is in the process of reviewing the study.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Steel declined to comment on the study. 

Results are no surprise to researchers

To public health researchers, the idea that air pollution causes health problems is not surprising. 

“I don’t think that is something that is very surprising,” said Ana Rule, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. 

“You can choose to drink water from a different source if you don’t like the smell or the feel or the look of the water that’s coming out of your tap. But you cannot choose to not breathe the air,” she said  

Lucas Henneman, assistant professor at George Mason University, said there are clear links between air pollution and lung disease, heart disease, brain disease, and “even death.”

“We’ve established evidence going back decades that emissions influence air quality, air quality influences health,” said Henneman, who was not involved in the study. “When we can show..there are clear benefits when we reduce air pollution to health. I think that sends a pretty powerful message that these interventions that we’ve taken on polluting facilities work.”

Thurston said the study highlights the health benefits of reducing the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, the main driver of climate. By dealing with climate change, we could also deal with local air pollution, he said.   

“Reducing our dependence on coal and fossil fuels will bring huge health benefits and they’re immediate and they’re local, just as we see in this,” Thurston said. “If different localities or people or governments step up and clean their air, they will get these benefits, especially if they’re reducing fossil fuels and especially coal.” 

The study was funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front. It appeared in the journal Environmental Research Health. 

Correction: This story was updated 9/28/23 to reflect the proper spelling of Lucas Henneman.