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How Air Pollution From Power Plants Hurts Neighboring Communities and Air Quality

Industrial emissions worsen air quality for all, but adverse health effects from power plant air pollution are a greater threat to neighboring communities.

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In July 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released Power Plants and Neighboring Communities. A new interactive map resource and the corresponding data provide relevant context about how power plants across the United States affect those communities in closest proximity. After all, power plant air pollution is a significant source of air pollution exposure. In fact, power plants are the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. 

The data assessed more than 3,400 fossil fuel-fired power plants across the country. Specifically, it hones in on the immediate three-mile vicinity according to six key demographics. Those demographics are low-income populations, people of color, persons with less than high school education, persons who are linguistically isolated, persons over age 64 and children under five. 

The purpose of the resource is to inform—not only those interested in learning how nearby industrial emissions affect their heath and home, but also to help decision-makers in communities by supplying relevant data. Recognition of power plant air pollution is part of the EPA’s commitment to environmental justice and environmental health under the current Biden Administration. All this said, how bad is power plant air pollution really?

Are Power Plants Sources of Air Pollution?

The short answer: absolutely. Burning fossil fuels for industrial purposes, including power plants, results in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon dioxide and mercury emissions—to name a few. Coal alone is responsible for 42% of U.S. mercury emissions. There are tons of hazardous air toxics and pollutants released into the air from power plants. 

And while the EPA’s interactive map has a three-mile range, power plant air pollution is not limited to that short distance. In reality, air pollution can travel long distances, impacting both communities far away and nearby. However, those living, working and breathing air in close proximity to power plant sources are at a significantly greater risk.

Clean Air Act Standards: What about air quality regulations? Wondering where federal oversight and EPA standards come into play? Learn more about criteria air pollutants and NAAQS →

Air pollutants result in respiratory and cardiovascular problems. There are many known adverse health effects and varying symptoms resulting from air pollution exposure. Certain populations are considered more vulnerable to air pollution’s health threats including low-income populations, the young, the elderly and Indigenous persons. 

Addressing Power Plant Air Pollution 

As aforementioned, the interactive map is partly aimed at local policy and community decision-makers to formulate well-informed decisions. Regardless of your position in the community, advocating for clean air choices and promoting healthy air quality actions can make all the difference. But what can homeowners, business owners, renters and local citizens do to address power plant air pollution for their own indoor spaces? There are several IAQ control solutions and strategies to utilize in order to protect your home’s indoor air quality. Here are a few to consider.

1. Source Control Measures

Source control is the easiest IAQ control method to implement. At least—from the perspective that it’s cost-free, DIY and easy to enact. On the other hand, source control measures are not one-and-done solutions. That is, they’re not a system upgrade to fix it and forget. Rather, source control means actively changing your and your family’s habits, routines and practices in the home. This can include taking shoes off at the door rather than tracking pollutants in or checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) before opening windows to let outdoor air inside. Source control measures might also look like choosing eco-friendly cleaning products over harsh chemicals or scheduling routine bi-annual HVAC maintenance.

Healthy Home IAQ: Creating a healthy home environment with good indoor air quality requires healthy home habits. An improved indoor living environment with these seven healthy home tips →

2. Air Filter Maintenance

Upgrading your home air filter is another easy IAQ control solution. Opting for a high-efficiency air filter includes numerous benefits. A higher-rated air filter also provides long-term cost savings. However, upping the initial filter price tag isn’t always feasible. Instead, find the best filter option for your space and budget, and commit to a routine filter maintenance schedule. Your home air filter can only work as well as you let it. A clogged or dirty air filter does nothing to improve indoor air quality and prevent outdoor air pollutants and power plant emissions from spreading indoors. This is why it’s critical to regularly check and change your home air filter—more often than most homes have to, due to your home’s close proximity to a major industrial pollution source.

3. Air Quality Awareness

Along the same lines as the AQI source control tip, building a more active air quality awareness is a helpful prevention step. Like so many things in life, awareness facilitates better choices, more knowledgeable action and the ability to aid in preventing power plant air pollution exposure. 

4. Consider a Whole-Home Solution

A wildly effective IAQ control solution is to install a whole-home solution. This kind of HVAC system upgrade installs directly into your existing HVAC system and provides healthier, cleaner indoor air to the entire space. The best solution for your home will depend on other potential IAQ pain spots. For example, if excess humidity is an issue, then a whole-home dehumidifier might be the best option. If you have many known indoor pollution sources, a whole-home air purifier is probably ideal. Or, one of the best options to counteract poor outdoor air quality is a mechanical ventilation solution. Consult with an expert HVAC contractor, they can help you find the best whole-home solution for your space.

Resources for Neighboring Communities

Today, there is a greater understanding of the need for environmental justice actions and solutions. Power plant air pollution is already changing for the better. Or at least, policies concerning industrial emissions and power plants are heading in the right direction. Many fossil fuel-fired plants, particularly coal plants, are planning to close by 2030 or switch to natural gas and renewable sources. Hopefully, the future decades will include massive overhauls that provide healthier, cleaner air throughout the United States.

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