Column: How dirty is Racine County’s air?

We Energies Oak Creek Power plant

Southeast Wisconsin has a serious air quality problem, and it is impacting the health of residents in Racine County.

In observance of: 

here are some air quality and asthma facts and how the two are linked.

What makes up our Air Quality

Ozone and fine particulate matter levels are air quality indicators. Milwaukee and Kenosha counties received a failing grade for ozone levels by the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2019” study. Emissions from industrial facilities and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of “bad” ozone. Southeast Wisconsin currently has two coal-fired power plants at the Oak Creek generating site: We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant and the Elm Road Generating Station are generating “bad” ozone.

Over the past decade, and especially in the last year, there have been numerous incidents of coal dust blowing from the coal storage piles at the We Energies Oak Creek Power Plant blanketing nearby homes and playgrounds. While there is a definite correlation with health issues in the homes closest to the Oak Creek Power Plant. One can’t contribute all of the issues to We Energies’ emitting fine particulate matter, but they are definitely a large contributor. Fine particulate matter contained in coal dust, smoke and ash have been linked to asthma by the US EPA and the CDC

Air quality induced Asthma

Asthma is a serious condition. It accounts for more than 2 million visits to the emergency department yearly, making it one of the top 20 reasons for ED visits, according to a recent national survey by the CDC.

“In 2015, there were 3,615 deaths attributed to asthma in the U.S. This means about 10 people per day lose their life to asthma. Older adults are at the highest risk of fatality,” according to Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s report, Asthma Capitals 2018: The Most Challenging Places to Live with Asthma.

In this same report, Milwaukee ranked 14th out of 100 cities based on estimated asthma prevalence, emergency department visits due to asthma and asthma-related fatalities. Poor air quality is directly connected to both the development and exacerbation of asthma.

“The biggest impact living in Milwaukee has on my asthma is the air quality,” stated April Behounek in AAFA’s report, a Milwaukee resident.

Closer to home, the Oak Creek Community Health Survey showed the rates of asthma in area children have increased from 4% to 16% between 2012 and 2015. For urban areas like Racine, it is even more concerning because African-Americans in the U.S. die from asthma at a higher rate than people of other races or ethnicities. And asthma can be especially challenging for low-income families, according to the AAFA’s report. Racine County has an average of 45.9 asthma-related ER visits per 10,000 people, which is above the statewide value of 39.5 visits, according to the county health report.

If you’re interested in improving the local air quality, I urge you to support the Clean Power Coalition’s mission to get We Energies to switch to renewables. Visit their site to learn the various ways you can help get rid of coal-fired power plants in Southeastern Wisconsin.

About the author

Knoff after sampling the Root River with UW-Parkside for a WI DNR Permit, September 20, 2018

A Racine native, Katie Knoff has a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Studies from UW-Parkside. There she focused her studies on environmental problems in the past, present, and future, specifically water and geographic mapping. She chose environmental studies because from a young age she loved the outdoors as it always gave me a sense of peace.

If you have any questions or story suggestions, email her at kknoff@racinecountyeye.com.