Massachusetts Medical Society Opposes Biomass Power, Cites Health Concerns

Vital Signs: December 2009/ January 2010

On December 5, the MMS adopted policy opposing proposed biomass power plants on the grounds that they pose an “unacceptable health risk.” The move follows a decision by state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles to order a six-month study of the environmental impact of biomass power plants.

Biomass combustion creates power by burning wood from harvested trees or from construction debris. State and federal “renewable energy” incentives have spurred the development of proposed biomass power plants in Russell, Greenfield, Springfield, and Pittsfield.

Society member James Wang, M.D., who lives in the Pioneer Valley, first heard about the Russell plant in 1997 and became increasingly concerned about the potential negative environmental and health effects.

Meanwhile, the local American Lung Association chapter came out against biomass combustion energy because of its impact on health.

“About 40 percent of the population in Hampden County is considered at high risk for medical complications from increased pollution,” Dr. Wang noted.

This summer, other MMS members contacted the Society to raise concerns about the issue. “Hundreds of modern epidemiological studies have described an association between elevated particulate air pollution levels and mortality and other adverse health effects,” said MMS member Jefferson Dickey, M.D., who practices in Turners Falls. Those health effects include increased cardiopulmonary symptoms, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations.

In addition to particulates, the nitrogen oxide emissions from biomass combustion form ozone, which reacts in the pulmonary airways to cause symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing, Dr. Dickey said.

In October, Dr. Wang brought the issue before the executive board of the Hampden District Medical Society. Calling the plants “an unacceptable threat to the health of citizens in the Pioneer Valley,” the district board voted to oppose the plants, a move that garnered the attention of local papers and the Boston Globe.

Dr. Dickey brought the issue to the attention of the MMS Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health. After reviewing the data, the committee jointly sponsored the report recommending MMS opposition.

The committee is teaming with the MMS Committee on Public Health and the Harvard School of Public Health to sponsor the sixth Annual Public Health Leadership Forum, which will take place on April 28, 2010, and will focus on the health aspects of energy policy and practices.

Although biomass fuel is considered a renewable resource, “it is a big misnomer” to consider it clean, based on what’s coming out of the stacks, said Rick Donahue, M.D., a member of the Committee on Environmental and Occupational Health. Last year, the MMS adopted the committee’s recommendations for education about the health impacts of fossil fuels and advocacy to boost development of healthier and safer energy sources.

“This is not a political issue for us,” Dr. Wang concluded. “It’s a health issue.”

– Robyn Alie