University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

Respiratory Function and Racial Health Disparities With Residential Proximity to Coal Power Plants in Wisconsin

Michael Hii, BS; Kirsten Beyer, PhD, MPH, MS; Sima Namin, PhD; Kristen Malecki, PhD, MPH; Caitlin Rublee, MD, MPH

WMJ. 2022;121(2):94-98,105

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Background: Burning fossil fuels, including coal, is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions driving anthropogenic climate change and its associated health harms. Coal-fired power plants supply 23% of electricity nationally and 42% for Wisconsin, contributing to air pollution and associated respiratory diseases, cancers, and cardiovascular and neurologic disorders, especially for vulnerable populations. Authors seek to quantify residential distance from coal-fired power plants, pulmonary function of Wisconsin residents, and demographics.

Methods: Data from 2,327 adults aged 21-74 years was obtained from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin database from 2008 through 2013. Pulmonary function was measured by expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) as a ratio of FEV1/FVC. An average of at least 3 FEV1/FVC readings less than 80% was considered abnormal.

Results: Adults living near 1 of 11 coal-fired power plants may have worse pulmonary function. The odds ratio of FEV1/FVC values below 80% for those living within 35 km of a coal-fired power plant was 1.24 (95% CI, 0.90-1.70) when compared to those living greater than 35 km from a plant. While Black individuals made up 4.8% of the total sample population, they accounted for 13.3% of individuals living within 35 km of coal-fired power plants. Similarly, Hispanic populations accounted for 4.8% of those living within 35 km of a plant, while making up 2.8% of the sample population.

Interpretation: Significant disparities were found in residential proximity to Wisconsin coal-fired power plants for Black and Hispanic populations, with trends that support worse pulmonary function when living within 35 km of these plants. When linked with socioeconomic and racial/ethnic factors, closing down coal-fired power plants becomes a necessity to reduce disparities and address environmental injustices.

Author Affiliations: School of Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Hii); Division of Epidemiology, Institute for Health and Equity, MCW, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Beyer, Namin); Department of Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin (Malecki); Department of Emergency Medicine, MCW, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Rublee); Institute for Health and Equity, MCW, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Rublee).
Corresponding Author: Caitlin Rublee, MD, MPH, Medical College of Wisconsin, 8701 W Watertown Plank Rd, Wauwatosa, WI 53226; email
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: None declared.
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