Closure of coal-processing plant boosts health

Heart health among Pittsburgh-area residents took a turn for the better after a local coal-processing plant closed seven years ago, new research shows.

Soon after the Shenango Coke Works facility in Neville Island, Pennsylvania, closed its doors in January 2016, average weekly visits to the local emergency departments for heart-related problems decreased by 42%.

Health benefits from the closure continued over the long term, with fewer hospitalizations from heart attacks, strokes and other cardio-related issues at least two years later, according to the study, which was published July 31 in Environmental Health Research.

Researchers linked the heart health improvements to the end of fossil fuel-related emissions from the plant, which processed coal for more than 50 years. Immediately after the facility closed, air particulate levels of arsenic, a coal-processing byproduct, fell by 66%. Levels of sulfur dioxide, another byproduct, fell by 90%. 

No similar decreases in air pollutant levels or health visits and hospitalizations were found in comparable Pennsylvania communities with operating coal-processing plants, noted the New York University-affiliated researchers. Previous research has ranked Pittsburgh as having some of the nation’s highest levels of air pollution and related deaths.

U.S. maternal mortality disparities stark in South

The South remains the heart of the nation’s maternal morbidity crisis, with Black women at greatest risk, a new report finds. 

From 2018-2021, the highest rates of maternal-related deaths occurred primarily in the Deep South, according to Milken Institute researchers who examined data on 10 high-risk states. 

Compared to the overall U.S. rate of 34.09 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, Alabama and Mississippi experienced 64.63 and 63.08 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, respectively, the August report found. The two states have some of the nation’s highest proportion of Black residents and of people in poverty. They also rank low on access to health care and affordability, according to a recent Commonwealth Fund analysis.

 Neighboring states Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee all experienced 53 or more maternal deaths per 100,000 live births during the study period. 

When broken down by race, the rates were even more stark. Black women had a maternal mortality rate of 85.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared to a rate of 38.6 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women. The highest maternal death disparities between Black and white women occurred in Georgia and North Carolina.

The 10 states in the report — which also included Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — account for more than a third of the nation’s Black population, the researchers noted.

Lead exposure linked to criminal behavior

Children exposed to lead in their early years are at increased risk of criminal behavior later in life, a new study finds. 

Published Aug. 1 in PLOS Global Health, the systemic review analyzed more than a dozen previous studies, concluding that lead exposure in the womb or in childhood was linked with an increased likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior in adulthood. 

Adults who had been exposed to lead while young were more likely to have an arrest, incarceration or conviction of some type than people who had not been exposed, the review found. Examples of criminal behavior included physical violence, fighting, sexual harassment, theft and abuse.

Research has shown that people exposed to lead while young can experience neurological damage. Children are more susceptible to harm from lead than adults in part because of their developing organs and weaker nervous system barrier, the study noted.

In the U.S., the most frequent source of childhood lead exposure is contaminated paint dust, which is common in homes built before lead-based paint was banned in 1978. Other sources can include plumbing fixtures, such as corroded pipes that carry drinking water. Children who live in poor-quality and older homes are at higher risk. 

There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Air pollution raises death risks for people with IBD

Air pollution increases the risk of death for people with a common digestive disease, new research shows. 

Researchers looked at the effects of air pollution on people with inflammatory bowel disease, a condition characterized by inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. They found that exposure to air pollution increased the likelihood that IBD patients would need gastrointestinal surgery or die prematurely.

Exposure to fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, increased the likelihood of surgery and death for people with IBD. Exposure to nitrogen oxide and PM10 — which is larger particulate matter, such as in wildfire smoke or construction dust — also increased risks for death among people with IBD. 

As air pollution levels increased, so did risks, according to the study, which was published July 28 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Prior research has shown that exposure to air pollution can cause both airway and systemic inflammation in the human body. Air pollution has also been linked with IBD onset and increased hospitalizations for people with the disease.

About 3.1 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with IBD, which encompasses both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. 

More heat protection needed for outdoor workers, advocates say

As parts of the nation grapple with record-setting heat this summer, advocates are calling on the federal government to do more to protect workers.

On July 26, the United Farm Workers, UFW Foundation and La Union del Pueblo Entero urged the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue permanent heat- protection standards for outdoor laborers. The call for action came after two workers died from heat exposure that month: On July 6, 29-year-old farmworker Efraín López García died on the job in Homestead, Florida, and on July 20, 26-year-old Dario Mendoza collapsed and died while working in a field in Yuma, Arizona.

Despite the known dangers of heat, the U.S. lacks a detailed standard that would protect workers. OSHA regulations state that employers should supply shade, rest and water, but do not specify actions based on temperature levels, for example. The agency issued a proposed rulemaking notice for heat-injury prevention in October 2021, but has not completed its work.

On July 27, the Department of Labor issued a heat-hazard alert to draw attention to existing heat protections for workers. The alert directs OSHA to step up enforcement. The same day, a bill that would require OSHA to issue an interim heat protection standard was introduced in Congress. 

While some states, such as California and Colorado, have comprehensive heat standards that are designed to protect outdoor workers, most do not. In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a measure preventing cities and counties in the state from mandating water breaks or other protections for workers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 400 workers have died from heat exposure since 2011, and thousands have been hospitalized.

The Watch is written by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.