Schweiger: The Smokey City is once again at a Crossroads

pollution pittsburgh

Clairton resident Melanie Meade at the Clean Air press conference on June 20th outside the U.S. Steel Building downtown. (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

My family has lived in Pittsburgh for generations dating back to the early 1800s. Looking over the death certificates of my ancestors, I discovered a clear pattern of premature deaths caused by respiratory and cardiovascular diseases-the very kind of diseases that are triggered by air pollution. By the peak of the Second World War, pollution in Pittsburgh got so bad that streetlamps were needed all hours of the day.

My grandmother worked for David L. Lawrence when he became mayor in 1946 and promised to clean the city’s air. In his first inaugural speech, Lawrence said, “I am convinced that our people want clean air. There is no other single thing which will so dramatically improve the appearance, the health, the pride, the spirit of the city.” Lawrence followed up on his promise and addressed the smoke that was dropping a hundred tons of soot each month coating the city. I witnessed fresh snow turned soot-black within hours in the ’50s. Under Lawrence’s leadership, smoke in the form of airborne soot had finally declined by 90 percent. 

Today, the climate crisis and poor air quality have this in common; they both are primarily caused by fossil-fuel burning. We face growing health risks from ground-level ozone and fine respirable particles. A warming climate exacerbates pollutant impacts. 

Ground-level ozone produced when methane and other organics by emitted by frack-wells, refineries, and chemical plants combines with nitrogen oxides emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, and other sources. The organics and nitrogen oxides react chemically in the presence of sunlight. Located in the heart of the Marcellus gas country, air quality is made worse by increasing methane leakage rates in the gas infrastructure. 

Fine respirable particles are emitted by coke ovens, power plants, industrial boilers, frack-wells, refineries, chemical plants, cars, and many other fossil-fuel-burning sources. They are referred to as “PM2.5″ tiny particles or droplets that are two-and-one-half microns or less in width-at least thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair. These invisible particles can penetrate deep in our lungs and enter cardiovascular systems.

The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report found, “air quality in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area worsened, not only for ozone (smog), but also for the second year in a row for both the daily and long-term measures of fine particle pollution. Outside of California, Allegheny County is the only county in the United States that recorded failing grades…” 

With a long history of air pollution, Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of leading the Nation in per capita premature deaths due to air pollution.  A peer-reviewed published study in the science journal Nature by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that more than 4,800 Pennsylvanians died prematurely in 2018 because of air pollution

This is the highest death rate in the Nation and third highest in total deaths. In 2016, Allegheny County had an age-adjusted mortality rate of 787 per 100,000, which is larger than the 768 for Pennsylvania and higher than the 728 for the United States. The age-adjusted death rate had been trending downward until 2012 and is now spiking up in Allegheny County. 

The study estimated that 2,724 of the premature deaths are self-inflicted since Pennsylvania is the Nation’s second-largest producer of frack-gas and we continue to be the third-largest coal-producing state. As longtime and aging manufacturing hub supplied America with steel, Pittsburgh is still suffering the effects of decades of industrial decline. 

Fugitive emissions have been increasing from aging coke ovens, steel mills, and other old industrial infrastructure. Methane and other pollutants leaking from nearby frack-wells and gas infrastructure are adding to regional ozone levels, increasing toxic respirable particles and warm the planet. 

The Beaver County Cracker plant will dramatically increase pollution levels when it is operational and it will need about a thousand new frack-wells that will emit additional pollutants. An expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, frack-wells, and gas power plants are being built throughout the region with dangerous emissions that choke communities 

Clairton Coke Works

The Clairton Coke Works seen from a surrounding hillside (Current photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

In the absence of Light 

A few years ago, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Carnegie Science Center organized an outing for children from Pittsburgh to visit Bear Run Natural Area in Fayette County for a campout and an “owl watch.” Standing in a high-elevation meadow overlooking the winding Youghiogheny River as night fell; the children were startled by their first glimpse of the myriad of bright stars that were set in a crystal-clear black sky.

Most of these bewildered children had never seen night in the absence of ambient light and air pollution. In the city, pollution-induced haze and “scatter-light” wash out the light emanating from distant stars and block their view of the night sky and dimmed their sense of the immeasurable extravagance of the heavens. 

Few America cities better demonstrate the threats caused by fossil fuel burning than Pittsburgh. Coke oven gases waft over Swissvale, and Allegheny County communities contain sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and volatile organic compounds. During times of spiking emissions, high concentrations of these emissions impact breathing and trigger chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, including asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. As we face the risks of coronavirus, health professionals warn that it will be those with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases who will be at considerable risks.  

Lee Willard is a single mom living in Swissvale with two of her children while three others are in local colleges and universities. Lee knows, “the air pollution here is one of the very worst in the entire United States. We suffer daily from symptoms. Some days it is a runny nose that disappears after a few hours. Sometimes a swollen throat that is slightly sore, then it goes away. Sometimes my lungs burn inside. Every day when I laugh, I hear a wheezing sound. Humor is only healing emotionally. I wonder what our bodies are contaminated with sometimes. This air is thick and smells like chemicals.”

People like Lee who living in heavily impacted communities can join Smell PGH that crowdsources smell reports so the Allegheny County Health Department can track how pollutants travel. Smell Pittsburgh worked with the Allegheny County Health Department to set up the app so they receive all odor complaints as they are submitted. The health department can use this to better monitor air quality and identify pollution sources. https://smellpgh.org/ 

Lee is now considering her limited options, “I have a very sad dilemma at hand. I may have to move us away from my three college kids to save the health of my younger children who are still developing and growing. I learned that air pollution causes all kinds of terrible health issues. Cancer, asthma, cardiac and other respiratory problems, even brain dysfunction and mental health disorders. Where will we go? How far away do we have to move to protect our health and wellness? The Shell cracker plant will be running next year. I cannot imagine worse air! The plumes of toxic filth from that plant. The coke plant is bad enough! Why? How can this happen? Then why is this happening? If my little girl sometimes coughs at night even with an indoor air purifier, and she has to walk through odorous smog to her bus stop in the morning, then what will next year bring to Pittsburgh? Don’t we have a Constitutional right to clean air and water? Yes, we do!”

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