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Air Quality Expo Educates Citizens on Air Pollution

PennFuture and Clean Water Action hosted the Third Annual Air Quality Expo at the Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library this month to educate East End Pittsburgh residents about the steady stream of air pollution from the Mon Valley - pointing out that this pollution travels and impacts their lives.

The event kicked off with VICE media’s documentary, “Steam Valley,” in which PennFuture member, Cheryl Hurt, as well as other Clairton residents discuss their day-to-day routines, how they can smell benzene in the air, and how they have learned to master the technique of “breathing while running” in order to participate in local sports. Residents also discussed dealing with the alarming rates of childhood asthma in the area.

The degradation of air quality that many in the Mon Valley observe is due to one of the biggest polluters in Allegheny County, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. In fact, Allegheny County ranks in the top two percent nationally for cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants (Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threat Analysis Report, 2013).

The eye-opening documentary shows the disconnect between Pittsburghers who are convinced what comes out of the Clairton Coke Works is purely steam, versus what local public health and air quality experts state is actually spewed from the smokestacks, which includes particulate matter (PM 2.5). 

But it’s not just Clairton residents who are at risk of these harmful plumes. 

According to Dr. Albert Presto, an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, who is tracking the path of Mon Valley pollution, these plumes can be as far-reaching as to travel to East End communities like Squirrel Hill. 

Using the “Breathemobile,” Presto collected pollution data throughout Allegheny County and turned this data into a series of color-coded maps that reveal where pollutants are found throughout the county. 

“Industrial facilities such as the Clairton Coke Works that emit large amounts of pollution can affect communities miles away,” Presto states. “Pittsburgh’s river valleys augment the problem because the emissions can get trapped down there.”

Dr. Deborah Gentile also presented her recent childhood asthma study that is contingent with Presto’s work. She found that among 1,200 elementary school children who live near sources of pollution, such as the Clairton Coke Works, about 35 percent have asthma, and two thirds of them, or 24 percent, actually knew they had asthma.

The national asthma rate is about 8 percent and in Allegheny County, it’s 13 percent.

Children are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution because, compared to adults, they have a larger lung surface area in relation to their body weight, and breathe about 50 percent more air per kilogram of body weight. 

Gentile states, “Near these point sources of pollution, we tend to see more minority families as well as more lower socioeconomic status, and that’s what they find in other cities as well. These are the people who can’t afford to live elsewhere.”

“The kids who are exposed to the highest level of particulate matter, as well as the highest level black carbon, are twice as likely to have a diagnosis of asthma than those who are exposed to the lower levels. So, that really has to be a call for public policy change to clean this air up,” she said.

While this all may seem a bit daunting and out of your hands, Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab would argue otherwise. With their citizen science tools such as the “Smell Pgh” app, where you can submit real-time data on your location and what kind of industrial smell you are encountering directly to the Allegheny County Health Department, any Pittsburgher (including YOU) can help in holding industry and its regulatory agency, in this case the Allegheny County Health Department, accountable.

In addition to monitoring the air in your community by watching the Breathe Cam or renting a Speck Sensor from your library, we need you to speak out to the Allegheny County Health Department Board of Health meetings to voice your concerns and why we all have the right to breathe clean air. 

Join us as we continue to fight for clean air, and join our email list to stay updated on the latest actions you can take.

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