According to researchers at the School of Public Health (SPH), air pollution from two Massachusetts coal-fired power plants contributes to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone exposure over a large region. Using a sophisticated model of how particulate matter and its precursors are dispersed in the atmosphere, SPH scientists Jonathan Levy and John D. Spengler have calculated exposures to 32 million residents living in New England, eastern New York, and New Jersey from these older plants.

Their report estimated that current emissions from the Salem Harbor and Brayton Point power plants can be linked to more than 43,000 asthma attacks and nearly 300,000 incidents of upper respiratory symptoms per year in the region. The study also estimated that 159 premature deaths per year could be attributed to this pollution.

The health risks are greatest for people living closer to the plants. Twenty percent of the total health impact occurs on 8 percent of the population that lives within 30 miles of the facilities. The researchers also analyzed the potential health benefits of reducing current emissions to the levels that would be reached by using the best available control technology required for newer power plants since the 1977 Clean Air Act – and required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as retrofit on some older plants. An estimated 124 premature deaths would be averted per year, along with 34,000 fewer asthma attacks and 230,000 fewer incidents of upper respiratory problems.

The Salem Harbor and Brayton Point power plants are currently exempt from more stringent regulatory controls applied by the state and federal governments to newer plants. At a time when Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci has asked power plant owners to submit voluntary emissions reduction plans or face regulation, this study offers a timely analysis of the health impact of current emissions and the potential benefits of reductions.