Kids and Coal Closures

Children living in Chicago zip codes closest to coal-fired power plants had more asthma-related emergency department visits than those living farther away.


Read Time: 2 minutes


The climate crisis is generating high demand for renewable sources of energy. As calls to harness wind, solar, and hydropower increase, our reliance on coal is on the decline.

Coal-fired power plants emit many harmful pollutants. These include air-borne particles called PM2.5, and chemicals such as sulfur dioxide. Both of these pollutants can cause breathing problems. Children are especially affected by air pollution. They breathe more rapidly than adults and spend more time outdoors where air pollution levels are high. Their lungs may also be more susceptible to damage.

Researchers Sarah Komisarow and Emily Pakhitigian explored the health impacts of coal-fired power plants on children ages 4 and under. The white triangles on the map mark the locations of three operational coal-fired power plants near Chicago in 2009. The zip code areas in bold are located within 10 kilometers of these facilities. As shown by the darker shading, children living in zip codes closest to the power plants had more asthma-related emergency department visits than those living further away.

In 2012, all three of these coal-fired facilities shut down. The research team wanted to know how these closures impacted asthma-related emergency department visits among children. The team analyzed emergency department visit data from the Chicago Health Atlas alongside PM2.5 data from the Environmental Protection Agency for 2009-2017.

Five years after the closures, asthma-related emergency department visits had decreased by 18% among children who lived closest (within 10 kilometers) to the power plants. Furthermore, zip codes nearest these facilities saw a greater drop in average PM2.5 levels in the years after the closures compared to zip codes further away.

Continued changes in energy production across the country can improve the respiratory health of young children. Low-income families and children of color who are more likely to live near operational power plants stand to benefit the most from these closures.

Databyte via Sarah Komisarow and Emily L. Pakhtigian2021The Effect of Coal-Fired Power Plant Closures on Emergency Department Visits for Asthma-Related Conditions Among 0- to 4-Year-Old Children in Chicago, 2009–2017. American Journal of Public Health 111, 881_889.