ER visits for heart problems plummeted after Pittsburgh coal processor shut down

Levels of one highly-toxic pollutant fell by 90% and ER visits for heart problems decreased by 42% immediately after the shutdown.

PITTSBURGH—The closure of one of Pittsburgh’s largest coal-processing plants in 2016 led to a lasting reduction in hazardous air pollution and a decrease in heart-related hospital visits, according to a new study.


The Shenango Coke Works, located on Pittsburgh’s Neville Island, processed coal into coke, a key ingredient in steelmaking, until its closure in January 2016. Producing coke requires heating coal to extremely high temperatures, which releases a slew of hazardous pollutants.

The study, published in Environmental Health Research and led by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, looked at pollutants in air monitoring data and at emergency room visits and hospitalizations for heart problems before and after the plant’s closure. The research was prompted in part by previous Environmental Health News (EHN) reporting on the plant closure, in which questions were raised by the Allegheny Health Department about links between air pollution decreases and fewer ER visits for asthma and heart problems.

“Closing this plant and eliminating its pollution really had a dramatic health benefit on the communities living nearby,” George Thurston, one of the study’s coauthors and director of the Program in Exposure Assessment and Human Health Effects at the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU’s medical school, told EHN.

“We saw a dramatic, immediate decline in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiovascular issues and then over the next several years they kept declining,” Thurston said, noting that these accumulated health benefits are similar to those seen when people quit smoking.

The study found that average weekly hospital visits among residents in neighborhoods surrounding the plant for heart-related problems decreased by 42% immediately after the shutdown. The trend continued over the next three years, with 33 fewer average yearly hospitalizations for heart disease from 2016 through 2018 compared to the three years preceding the plant closure.

The study also found that average daily levels of sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of cokemaking linked to respiratory and heart problems, fell by 90% at government air-monitoring stations near the plant and by 50% at another air-monitoring station about six miles away in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Arsenic in particulate matter, another toxic byproduct emitted from the plant, fell by 66% at the monitors near the plant.

A lethal air pollution combination

coal pittsburgh air pollution

Neville Island’s Shenango Coke Works Plant in operation before the plant’s 2016 closing.

Credit: Brian Cohen for The Heinz Endowments

Previous research by the Allegheny County Health Department, which oversees air quality in the region, found that ER visits for asthma dropped 38% and visits for heart problems decreased by 27% the year after the closure of Shenango Coke Works, but local health officials were reluctant to attribute the change to the plant shutdown.

At the time, local health officials told EHN that the changes they’d observed in particulate matter pollution after the plant’s closure weren’t substantial enough to cause such a dramatic drop in emergency room visits for asthma, based on what they’d seen in other studies. But in the last several years, a growing body of research indicates that the source and makeup of particulate matter pollution determine how toxic it is.

“Coal-related particulate matter is more toxic than other types of particulate matter pollution,” Wuyue Yu, the new study’s lead author and a doctoral science student at NYU, told EHN. “So the significant reduction of these types of particles could explain why such a small change in overall particulate matter pollution had such a dramatic effect.”

Thuston pointed to other research showing that these coal-derived pollutants are rich in transition metals and sulfur, which he referred to as a “lethal combination.”

“Sulfur itself isn’t the big problem, but it’s acidic, which makes these transition metals more bioavailable throughout the body,” he explained, pointing to a 2021 study showing that places with higher levels of transition metals and sulfur in their air had higher cardiovascular mortality rates. “Absorbing these particles in our bodies creates oxidative stress, which is linked to all kinds of health problems.”

“It’s imperative for our health that we stop burning fossil fuels”

The Pittsburgh region is still home to the largest coke-making plant in the country, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, which is also one of the oldest operational coke plants in the country. In terms of production, the Clairton Coke Works is about ten times as large as the Shenango Coke Works was. The site lacks modern pollution controls, and the company is regularly fined for violating clean air laws at the site, but local activists say the fines are too low to incentivize change, calling it a “pay-to-pollute” model. Residents in Clairton regularly face some of the dirtiest air in the country and children at Clairton elementary school have asthma at nearly double the national rate.

In 2018, the Allegheny County Health Department said they’d observed a decrease in particulate matter pollution at air monitors near the Clairton Coke Works similar to what was seen following the closure of Shenango during the same time period, but hadn’t seen any of the same decrease in ER visits. At the time, they said this pointed to causes other than Shenango’s closure for the reduction in ER visits, so the researchers at NYU compared air pollution at monitors near the Clairton Coke Works with the pollution at monitors near Shenango, and found a significant difference in those “lethal combination” pollutants.

“At the monitors near Shenango, we saw a significant drop in sulfate, arsenic and selenium right after the closure and then consistently over the next three years,” Yu said. “At the monitors near the Clairton plant, we saw both spikes and overall higher levels of sulfate, arsenic and selenium over the same time period.”

The researchers also looked at other health effects in the years before and after the plant’s closure, including childhood asthma. They said they observed similar patterns, but those findings haven’t been published yet. The reduction in airborne arsenic, a potent carcinogen, will likely contribute to a reduction in cancer rates over time, though that data won’t be available for several decades.

“Our study adds to the evidence suggesting that when we just look at overall particulate matter levels without considering the sources and makeup of that pollution, we’re grossly underestimating the health benefits of shutting off fossil fuel pollution,” Thurston said.

“It’s imperative for our health that we stop burning fossil fuels. The climate benefits are important, though they may feel more distant, and our research clearly indicates that the health benefits are immediate and local.”

Editor’s note: This study was funded by the Heinz Endowments, which also provides funding to Environmental Health News.

Op-ed: In the race for clean energy, the US is both a leader and a laggard — here’s how

We are currently in a tug-of-war between progress and the pugnacity of the fossil fuel industry.

Announcing recently that the world broke a record by generating 30% of all electricity from renewable sources in 2023, the British think tank Ember said the data proves we are in a “new era” of energy in which a permanent decline in fossil fuels is “inevitable.”

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
UN proposes fossil fuel ad ban
Credit: tanaonte/BigStock Photo ID: 456977425

UN chief calls for ban on fossil fuel advertising

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a ban on fossil fuel advertising to combat climate change, labeling coal, oil, and gas corporations as "godfathers of climate chaos."

Matt McGrath and Mark Poynting report for BBC.

Keep reading...Show less

Oceans under threat from heating, deoxygenation, and acidification

The world's oceans are experiencing unprecedented stress from extreme heat, oxygen loss, and acidification due to human activities like burning fossil fuels and deforestation.

Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less
Phoenix uses ice immersion to combat heatstroke as temperatures soar
Credit: vargazs/Pixabay

Phoenix uses ice immersion to combat heatstroke as temperatures soar

Phoenix firefighters are employing ice immersion techniques to treat heatstroke victims amid the season's first heat wave in the Southwest.

Anita Snow reports for TheAssociated Press.

Keep reading...Show less

Modi faces significant climate challenges in third term

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reelected for a third term, must address major climate-related challenges exacerbating the country’s political and economic issues.

Somini Sengupta reports for The New York Times.

Keep reading...Show less

Ursula von der Leyen's Green Deal struggles amid election campaign

Facing an election and multiple crises, Ursula von der Leyen has downplayed her Green Deal achievements to appease various factions within the EU.

Karl Mathiesen reports for POLITICO.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
environmental justice

LISTEN: Jose Ramon Becerra Vera on democratizing science

“In their own way, they’re becoming experts, not just of their experiences but also of the data collection process.”

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

“Of all the levels of radium in produced water or brine around the world that I’ve looked at, I have encountered none that are consistently as high as what comes out of the Marcellus Shale.”

environmental justice pittsburgh

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

Advocates and researchers gathered to not only discuss ongoing fights but victories, self-care and cautious optimism about the path ahead.

air pollution pittsburgh

Amidst a controversial international sale, U.S. Steel falls behind in cleaner steelmaking

U.S. Steel’s proposed sale to Nippon Steel stokes concerns over labor rights and national security, all while the company continues to break clean air laws in Western Pennsylvania.

exxon houston petrochemicals

Spanish-speaking residents feel left out of permitting process at massive Exxon petrochemical plant in Houston-area

“It is important to ensure meaningful engagement efforts are inclusive and accessible to all diverse members of our communities.”

youth climate change

"Our lives might be on the line"

Eighth graders reflect on the state of the planet.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.