How would Pittsburgh fare under stricter air pollution standards?

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dr. Deborah Gentile knows how air pollution leads to debilitating conditions like asthma.

In Clairton’s working-class neighborhood of Mon Valley, home to its asthma clinic – and not coincidentally the largest coke factory in the US – one in four schoolchildren grows up with asthma. That is three times the national average. And 60 percent of those with the condition are considered “uncontrolled.”

In 2018, when a Christmas Eve fire at Clairton Coke Works damaged pollution control equipment and took it offline, an article in Toxics magazine showed the number of outpatient and emergency room visits for asthma exacerbations doubled.

“The first thing you want to do when you get asthma is to limit exposure to triggers — but you can’t avoid air pollution,” Gentile says. “If someone asks, I should really say what we know: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has collected a lot of data. And we have a very high degree of certainty that air pollution is linked to asthma… The EPA recognizes that elevated levels of sulfur dioxide and PM2.5 cause asthma. It’s not up for debate. It has been proven.”

dr. Deborah Gentile runs an asthma clinic in Clairton. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Gentile.

The debate over further limiting PM2.5 — short for particulate air pollutants many times smaller than the width of a human hair that can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system — was rekindled in January, when three key studies were published as the Biden Administration and EPA considered whether or not to tighten regulations.

Currently, the EPA sets the PM2.5 bar at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, although the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends stricter restrictions. Proposals for the new EPA standards are expected this spring.

The three studies and related studies, praised by environmentalists in the Pittsburgh area, found that black and Latino Americans are more likely than their white neighbors to breathe polluted air, older Americans face serious health risks from even low levels. from air pollution, and that older Americans living near fracking operations have an increased death rate.

Then there’s US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, which has been fined repeatedly for exceeding contaminant limits. Gentile says residents of Clairton who can’t breathe easily see the coking plant – which, in conjunction with Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, produces 70 percent of all PM2.5 pollution in the region – as the root of their problems.

“They feel helpless,” Gentile says. “They feel that no one is listening to them and that no one is going to do anything about it.”

‘A reckoning’

Air pollution has improved in many American cities since 2000 — even in Pittsburgh, a city that generations ago was notorious for turning on its streetlights at midday because the air, thick with soot and smog, darkened the afternoon sky.

Last year, on Jan. 26, the Allegheny County Health Department reported that all eight nationwide air quality monitors met federal standards for the first time. The monitors measure carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone and PM2.5.

“A great improvement has occurred and we are giving credit where credit is due,” said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health, advocacy and public policy for the American Lung Association. “But we also need to remind everyone that there are still serious problems with air pollution. From that perspective, more needs to be done.”

A study from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health conducted this month illustrates that zip code by zip code, racial minorities are still more likely than white Americans to breathe polluted air.

And experts say the trend is happening here in Pittsburgh.

The study, published Jan. 12 in the journal Nature, analyzes PM2.5 readings in 32,000 zip codes between 2000 and 2016 and concludes that areas with higher-than-average white and Native American populations were consistently exposed to less pollution than areas with higher-than-average white and Native American populations. average Black, Asian and Hispanic or Latino populations.

“Our study, which highlights the relative differences in PM2.5 exposure in the US, is especially timely given the current crises facing the country, such as a reckoning with racism and differences in Covid-19 outcomes,” says Francesca Dominici, a senior author of the study.

According to the Harvard study, previous research showed that racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income groups in the US are at a higher risk of premature death from exposure to PM2.5 air pollution than other groups. However, Dominici and their team’s new research linked demographic data from the US Census Bureau and American Community Survey over the course of 17 years with nationwide PM2.5 data estimated from machine learning models based on satellite observations and atmospheric chemistry models. . .

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey grew up in the city with asthma. Photo by Ann Belser.

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey says these trends are no secret to the communities living locally with polluted air.

“Communities of color and working-class families have faced environmental injustices and adverse health effects from poor air quality over the general population,” said Gainey, who grew up in the city suffering from asthma, which forced many visits to the children’s hospital from Pittsburgh. “The Pittsburgh metropolitan area is in the top 10 most polluted areas in the country. Our black and brown population is being exposed to these health risks at an alarming rate… We need to invest in environmental justice solutions to fight this crisis and truly build a city for all.”

Until recently, many Pittsburghers breathed air that did not meet all federal EPA standards. After the closure of Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island in 2016 and other measures, air quality improved across the country.

According to the Harvard study, the amount of air across the country fell above the federal standard from 57.3% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2016.

However, air pollution remains a looming problem facing societies worldwide. In 2019, 99% of the world’s population lived in places that did not meet WHO air quality guidelines.

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