September 24 | 2018

The Oakville Oil Refinery Closure and Its Influence on Local Hospitalizations: A Natural Experiment on Sulfur Dioxide. 

Burr WS, Dales R, Liu L, Stieb D, Smith-Doiron M, Jovic B, Kauri LM, Shin HH.

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Sep 17;15(9). pii: E2029. DOI:10.3390/ijerph15092029


Background: An oil refinery in Oakville, Canada, closed over 2004⁻2005, providing an opportunity for a natural experiment to examine the effects on oil refinery-related air pollution and residents’ health. Methods: Environmental and health data were collected for the 16 years around the refinery closure. Toronto (2.5 million persons) and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA, 6.3 million persons) were used as control and reference populations, respectively, for Oakville (160,000 persons). We compared sulfur dioxide and age- and season-standardized hospitalizations, considering potential factors such as changes in demographics, socio-economics, drug prescriptions, and environmental variables. Results: The closure of the refinery eliminated 6000 tons/year of SO₂ emissions, with an observed reduction of 20% in wind direction-adjusted ambient concentrations in Oakville. After accounting for trends, a decrease in cold-season peak-centered respiratory hospitalizations was observed for Oakville (reduction of 2.2 cases/1000 persons per year, p = 0.0006 ) but not in Toronto (p = 0.856) and the GTA (p = 0.334). The reduction of respiratory hospitalizations in Oakville post closure appeared to have no observed link to known confounders or effect modifiers. Conclusion: The refinery closure allowed an assessment of the change in community health. This natural experiment provides evidence that a reduction in emissions was associated with improvements in population health. This study design addresses the impact of a removed source of air pollution.