PITTSFIELD — Air pollution might not come up often in conversations between medical doctors and patients. Yet, doctors say that pollutants, including those emitted by local “peaker” power plants, can play a role in worsening heart and lung health.
Exposure to pollutants is associated with greater rates of developing asthma and other ailments that reduce lung function. Small particles known as particulate matter are especially concerning, and those levels also are linked with heightened risk for suffering a heart attack.
Beyond that, there is climate change, which is expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths from 2030 to 2050 if it continues at its current rate.
“Science has shown that pollutants take years off our lives,” said Dr. David Oelberg, a lung specialist with Berkshire Health Systems. “A lot of this stuff is not something that a patient is going to feel hurts them on a day-to-day basis unless they can see smog in the air. ... It’s a bit of a silent killer.”
Oelberg said he only recently has become aware of peaker plants, but he since has signed a petition circulated by the Berkshire Environmental Action Team asking the owners of three local peaker plants to consider switching to less-polluting energy sources. He named carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter as harmful pollutants.
BEAT and about 20 other groups are seeking to transition the three peakers to clean energy. The coalition has had what it says are collaborative discussions with the owner of two of those plants, and it now is focusing its efforts on Pittsfield Generating, a gas-fired plant on Merrill Road, near Allendale Elementary School and the Morningside neighborhood in Pittsfield.
Hull Street Energy, the Maryland-based private equity company that owns the plant, declined to comment.
The plant, which ran about 2 percent of the time in 2020, emitted about 19,150 tons of carbon dioxide and 3.25 tons of nitrous oxide that year, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. While it is more difficult to find data on particulate matter emissions, the plant’s permit says it can emit no more than 94 tons per year.
But, even legal levels of particulate matter can harm health, doctors say.
“There’s no safe amount. None is best, and the more you have, the worse,” said Dr. Henry Rose, a retired internal medicine physician who has contacted several local boards of health regarding the push to transition peakers. “As a climate activist, I’d like to see a great many parts of our energy sector transition to green energy, but we’re starting with the old and dirty plants that are in our backyard.”
Before the Pittsfield Board of Health voted unanimously last week to lend its support to the campaign, BEAT Executive Director Jane Winn said that a disparity in life expectancy among Pittsfield neighborhoods adds to the urgency of addressing pollution from peakers.
Winn shared a 2019 estimate that found the 71-year life expectancy in Morningside to be the lowest in Berkshire County, seven years below the national average and 12 years below the life expectancy in some of Pittsfield’s southeast neighborhoods. Morningside, where residents have lower income levels, on average, than Pittsfield as a whole, is within a mile of Pittsfield Generating.
“I’m not saying the disparity all comes from this plant, but we should be doing all that we can to alleviate the pressure that these neighborhoods already face,” Winn said.
There is significant evidence linking greater exposure to particulate matter, even at legal levels, with increased mortality among people receiving Medicare, Oelberg said. But, research also has linked reductions in particulate matter levels with reduced mortality. Even brief exposure can cause long-term harm because when particulate matter enters the lungs, it can “sit there and stay there,” Oelberg said.
Particulate matter-related heart attacks occur when those small particles inflame preexisting plaque in a blood vessel, said Dr. Georgianne Valli-Harwood, a BHS heart specialist.
“Most Americans, particularly most male Americans over 45 or 50, have some plaque in their arteries and for the most part it lays there dormant,” Valli-Harwood said. “A heart attack happens when that plaque is inflamed or irritated. ... It’s the same whether the irritation comes from pollutants or emotional stress.”
One objection Rose said he has heard to the campaign is over whether doing so could hurt municipal revenues.
Pittsfield Generating paid $1.4 million to the city in taxes in fiscal year 2021, making it Pittsfield’s third-largest taxpayer behind Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and Berkshire Gas.
In response, Rose points to the cost of human life, as well as the rates that residents pay to their utility providers for the plants. The World Health Organization found in 2018 that more than 4 million deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution, and studies have estimated that air pollution shaves two to three years off global life expectancy.
Dr. John Kearns, a semiretired BHS general surgeon and member of the Lenox Board of Health, said that pollution from peaker plants was “a subject that never really came up” before Rose contacted the Tri-Town Boards of Health, of which Lenox is a member. The panel signed on to BEAT’s petition shortly afterward.
Physicians can advise residents to take such steps as avoiding outdoor exercise on extremely hot days, when peaker plants are most likely to operate, Kearns said. But, people have routines and obligations that don’t always allow them to stick to those recommendations, so, Kearns said, he believes the better option is to change the plants.
“It’s a concern to climate change, it’s a concern to people’s health and it’s something that we have to deal with,” Kearns said. “Now that we are educated as a board of health, I think our input is important and, hopefully, something can change.”