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Researchers at Pitt took a look at births in southwest Pennsylvania and found a link between exposure to chromium and styrene and autism.


The study is here. We’re going to do our best to summarize it below.


Who did the study?

The study leader is Evelyn Talbot. She’s an epidemiologist in the public health school at Pitt. Epidemiologists try to establish cause and effect for disease, but often, they are also looking for correlations – things that have a relationship to each other, but aren’t necessarily cause and effect. A correlation is what they say they have found in this paper.

Children playing in the shadow of the coal-fired power plant in Cheswick.

Children playing in the shadow of the coal-fired power plant in Cheswick.

Who was in the study?

Talbot’s team took a look at the medical history and talked to the moms of 217 children born between 2005 and 2009 who have a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. These kids live in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington or Westmoreland Counties. The researchers also looked at a similar number of children who weren’t on the autism spectrum and interviewed their moms. They also compared their findings to thousands of births in the area, but there were no interviews.


Um, 217 kids doesn’t seem like a lot. Is it?

Is 217 enough to do a study? The authors said that based on predictions of the number of children born in these counties in those years, they wanted to enroll about half the number predicted to have ASD (autism spectrum disorder). That would be 250 children. Pretty close!


How do you know the kids were exposed to anything?

The team used computer models based on pollution data collected by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to predict the actual exposure of each kid in the study based on addresses during the study period. They looked at 30 different air toxics that are found in southwestern PA that have been known to effect development, our nervous systems or our hormone systems.


And they found what?

Of the 30 different air toxics they looked at (things like benzene, arsenic and lead), they found a pretty strong correlation between developing autism and exposure to styrene, an oily chemical that ends up in plastics and chromium, a metal that is sometimes used in steel production.


Now what?

The study is just the beginning, but since we already know that exposure to pollution can impact children and adults, the authors think that following up with monitoring the levels of styrene and chromium in the air can give us more data to better understand individual outcomes. One surprising thing is that we have no autism registry in PA. Given the number of people studying the disorders, and the list of potential causes, the researchers are calling on the state, if not the nation, to start a registry.



Something you have to see – a photo exhibit of lives and air pollution in Southwest Pittsburgh. Starting Friday, Sept. 18 at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

A child playing with fireworks. A significant source of pollution.

A child playing with fireworks. A significant source of pollution.


For the past year, local artists have used photography and interviews to try and visual thesocial, political, economic and health impacts of air pollution in the greater Pittsburgh area. We live in a region with about a dozen air quality monitors, gathering data about what we breathe. And guess what, nearly all of them record numbers in the worst one-third of the nation.

Children playing in the shadow of the coal-fired power plant in Cheswick.

Children playing in the shadow of the coal-fired power plant in Cheswick. This is one of the photos to be on exhibit at Pittsburgh Filmmakers from Sept. 18 through Feb. 26, 2016.

You can’t see air, but in this project all are the ways that you feel its impact. Make a night of it. Go.

Sept. 18, 2015 through Feb. 26, 2016

477 Melwood, Pittsburgh, 15213


News about the proposed Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County: the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project are appealing the permit given by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Why? Because, they say, the permit isn’t protective enough, and is violation of the federal Clean Air Act.


The ethane cracker would be in Monaca, which already is dealing with poor air quality that doesn’t meet federal standards. The new cracker would be a major point source for pollution.


In case you were curious, here’s ethane cracker 101: The facility will take a chemical called ethane, which is a component of one type of natural gas that comes from fracking, and convert it into polyethylene through a couple of chemical reactions that take the gas and eventually convert it into long chains of a similar repeating structure. Polyethylene is used in a lot of industrial processes, including making plastic that goes into everything from grocery bags to test tubes.


For ethane cracker 102, click here.




Here’s the news release:



August 4, 2015


Clean Air Council and Environmental Integrity Project Challenge PA Department of Environmental Protection’s Approval of Shell Ethane Cracker Permit


The Council and Environmental Integrity Project’s appeal of the permit follows their filing of comments recommending stronger pollution controls and air pollution monitoring. The DEP’s approval of Shell’s permit does not conform with the Clean Air Act.


Philadelphia, PA – Yesterday the Clean Air Council and the Environmental Integrity Project appealed a state permit for a proposed petrochemical plant northwest of Pittsburgh that would allow the construction of a major source of air pollution in an area that already exceeds federal air quality standards set to protect human health.


The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in June approved of a plan by Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC for a new petrochemical facility called an “ethane cracker” in Monaca, Beaver County, PA, that would process ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas to produce polyethylene for plastic products.


The environmental groups are appealing the permit to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board because DEP did not comply with the minimum requirements of the federal Clean Air Act and Pennsylvania’s State Implementation Plan.


“Shell’s proposed air pollution controls for the facility are inadequate and do not provide the residents of Beaver County with the most protective pollution technology controls, which have been implemented at similar Shell facilities and other petrochemical plants in other parts of the country,” said Joseph Otis Minott, Esq. Chief Counsel, Executive Director of the Clean Air Council.


”Ozone levels in Beaver County already exceed levels that are safe for human health, causing excess risk of asthma and other serious respiratory diseases.   Shell must monitor and control the facility’s emissions of volatile organic compounds, an ozone precursor, as much as possible to comply with the Clean Air Act and to protect the health of the surrounding communities,” said Sparsh Khandeshi, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.


The facility will be a major source of air pollution in Beaver County, an area that is currently designated as nonattainment for ozone and PM2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The groups argue that DEP has not required Shell to install equipment, such as fence-line monitoring, that would detect leaks and help achieve and ensure the lowest achievable emission rate.


The lawsuit also challenges Shell’s representation of the amount of volatile organic compounds that will be released from flaring. Without these needed controls, the groups believe that residents and communities in the Beaver County area would be harmed by the operation of the Shell Petrochemical Facility.


Clean Air Council is a member-supported, non-profit environmental organization dedicated to protecting everyone’s right to breathe clean air. The Council works through public education, community advocacy, and government oversight to ensure enforcement of environmental laws.


The Environmental Integrity Project is nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to advocating for more effective enforcement of environmental laws. EIP has three goals: (1) to provide objective analyses of how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and affects public health; (2) to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and (3) to help local communities obtain the protection of environmental laws.


Hey folks – big news today out of PennEnvironment – they’ve filed their intent to sue ArcelorMittal, the global steel company, for what they describe as hundreds of violations of the Clean Air Act out of their plant in Monessen, south of Pittsburgh.


PennEnvironment held a press conference today to discuss the pending suit, with people who live in the neighborhood talking about how hard it is to live by the plant. The full text of their press release is below.



ArcelorMittal’s Pittsburgh-area Plant Commits Hundreds of Clean Air Act Violations, Raining Soot and Foul Odors on Local Residents


[PITTSBURGH, PA] – At a news conference held in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh, representatives of the citizen-based non-profit group PennEnvironment announced they’re taking the required steps to trigger a lawsuit against the world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, to address hundreds of ongoing violations of the federal Clean Air Act.


The suit would address a wide variety of alleged problems at ArcelorMittal USA, Inc.’s Monessen Coke Plant, located twenty-five miles south of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Monongahela River. Local residents say the plant is fouling the air over a wide swath of southwestern Pennsylvania.


The required pre-suit notice letter, sent on behalf of PennEnvironment and its members to ArcelorMittal, as well as to state and federal regulators, alleges that residents of numerous nearby towns surrounding the plant have been showered with soot, acidic gases, and noxious odors since the idled, decades-old facility re-started in April 2014. These include the municipalities of Monessen, Donora, Monongahela, and Carroll Township, located in both Westmoreland and Washington counties.


A view of the ArcelorMittal plant in Monessen. Photo by Logan Tilley


“I’ve met with residents who live in towns all around this plant, and their stories about air pollution from this facility are gut-wrenching,” said David Masur, Executive Director of PennEnvironment. “Ever since the Monessen Coke Plant re-opened last year, local residents have had their quality of life diminished, have endured ongoing odors and soot, and have had to fear for their health and the health of their families. This is appalling and unacceptable.”


“The smell that emanates from the Monessen plant is consistently foul and sometimes so suffocating that I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I only get relief from these odors and pollution when I leave the area,” said Viktoryia Maroz, a resident of Donora, PA.


Photos of the facility can be viewed at hC4l. If using photos to accompany a news story, please credit as, “Logan Tilley.”


The Clean Air Act’s “citizen suit” provision allows private individuals and organizations to sue violators in federal court after first providing 60 days’ notice of their intent to file suit and of the violations to be addressed in the suit.


The Monessen plant’s 56 coke battery ovens heat coal at high temperatures to produce nearly 1,000 tons per day of “coke,” a form of carbon that is added to molten iron to produce steel. Coke from the Monessen plant is shipped to ArcelorMittal’s various North American steel mills.


The production of coke creates massive amounts of toxic, chemical-laden gases and fine particulate pollutants that, if not properly contained and treated, can cause serious environmental and public health problems when released to the surrounding environment.


The notice letter alleges a wide range of violations at ArcelorMittal’s Monessen plant, including:


• Operating the plant for days and weeks at a time while a key air pollution control device was out of service;
• Approximately 200 violations of the facility’s pollution limits for hydrogen sulfide (a toxic gas with a foul odor), sulfur dioxide (a respiratory irritant and contributor to acid rain), and particulate matter (which can lodge in the lungs and exacerbate respiratory problems);
• Failure to install a mandatory monitoring device needed to track the amount of hydrogen sulfide coming from the facility’s smokestacks.


At times, violations have been so egregious that ArcelorMittal’s emission levels have been up to eight times higher than the legally allowable limits.


ArcelorMittal USA, Inc., is headquartered in Chicago. Its parent company is headquartered in Luxembourg and has annual revenues of over $80 billion.


PennEnvironment’s lawsuit will be filed by the non-profit attorneys at the National Environmental Law Center (NELC), in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, located in Pittsburgh. The lawsuit will seek a court order requiring the Monessen Coke Plant to comply with its Clean Air Act permit, and civil penalties against ArcelorMittal to punish it for past violations and to deter future violations.


A separate class-action lawsuit (unrelated to the suit announced today by PennEnvironment) has been filed against ArcelorMittal’s Monessen Coke Plant, seeking monetary damages for residents suffering from noxious odors and soot.


“It’s outrageous that the world’s largest steel company, which brings in $80 billion annually, can’t find a way to comply with our cornerstone environmental laws and ensure the health and safety of nearby residents,” stated Masur. “That’s anything but being a good corporate neighbor.”




PennEnvironment is a citizen-funded, statewide environmental advocacy organization. For more information about this or other PennEnvironment campaigns, please visit our website at


The National Environmental Law Center (NELC) is a non-profit environmental litigation group. NELC will be joined in the lawsuit by attorney David Nicholas of Newton, Massachusetts, and Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Farrell of Farrell & Reisinger, LLC.

Today, the State Department of Environmental Resources has issued a “code orange” alert.  The air quality index is expected to enter the range of 101 to 150 for Pittsburgh, the Liberty-Clairton area in southeastern Allegheny County, and Indiana County.  This level of pollution puts young children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems in danger.
Click on the link above to watch a short video clip to see what a code orange day in Pittsburgh looks like.
Read more about this alert in today’s Post Gazette.

Did you see John Graham’s Op-Ed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette last week? If not, click here. John, who is a senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, studies air quality here in Western PA.



A screenshot of the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2015 report. Pittsburgh ranks in the top 10 for high levels of very small particles in the air. These particles can cause health problems.

The American Lung Association recently released their rankings of air quality nationwide. We are still in the top 10 for worst daily and yearly PM2.5 readings, even though we have been improving.


After the PG and others took the American Lung Association to task for basing their rankings on one monitor in our area, John said, hang on. Yes, that one monitor, the Liberty-Clairton monitor, gives really bad readings, but it’s not the only one.


Pittsburgh’s air is bad. Most of our monitors give readings in the bottom one-third of air quality in the nation. Think about it. Six hundred monitors nation wide. Two hundred in the bottom one-third. Most of Western PA’s one dozen monitors fall on that list.


Yes, it’s getting better, but the problem isn’t over. Is better air really good enough?


If you have an old wood stove or a wood-fired boiler, here’s your chance to make a little cash and potentially upgrade to something a little more air-friendly.


On Saturday, June 13, from 9 a.m. to noon in the parking lot of the Skating Rink in South Park, the Allegheny County Health Department is hosting its fourth annual buyback program for wood stoves and wood-fired boilers that don’t meet clean air goals.


Wood stoves that aren’t certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (basically anything built before 1992), will get you a $200 gift card. Wood-fired boilers that don’t meet Phase II goals for the EPA Hydronic Heater Voluntary Partnership Program will get you $500 cash. You need to register by Wednesday to drop off your old stove or boiler – if you just show up, the county may not be able to accept the drop off.


Why trade-in? Older models of both wood stoves and wood-fired boilers produce nearly twice as much small particle pollution (PM2.5) – that fine material that you can’t see, but that can be hazardous for people with asthma, breathing problems, heart problems and the like, as newer, certified models. Plus, when you burn wood, a laundry list of noxious gases and chemicals with links to cancer are released – benzene, formaldehyde, sulfoxides, nitrogen oxides, etc.


Check out this ad on Craigslist from someone trying to sell a wood stove, saying that asthma is one of the reasons why it’s on sale.*


Since the program started in 2013, ACHD has collected nearly 150 stoves and one boiler. They go to a company that recycles them.


EPA says that uncertified wood-fired boilers release nearly one ton of PM2.5 per year; certified boilers release about one-third that. A lot of clean air groups think the most air-friendly way to go is gas or electric, wanting you to breathe easier while staying warm next winter.


*It’s not clear from the ad or the model number if the stove is EPA compliant or not.

A few months after showing a link between autism and exposure to air toxics like styrene and chromium, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health are finding that soot, smoke and the small particles found in air pollution also are tied to this mysterious disorder.




The team, led by Pitt epidemiologist Evelyn Talbott, studied more than 200 children in Western Pennsylvania on the autism spectrum, and compared them to a similar number of children not on the spectrum. The researchers interviewed their moms extensively about their lives and where they lived from before they got pregnant to the time their kids turned two.


They compared the geographical data to pollution levels using a special modeling system. Talbott and her team found that both before the kids were born and after, exposure to PM2.5, particles that are less than 2.5 microns in size, correlated to a diagnosis on the spectrum. One in 68 kids is on the spectrum.


A pair of baby's feet


The study was published in early May in a journal called Environmental Research, and while it isn’t conclusive, it does make us wonder – shouldn’t we give kids the cleanest air possible?





Our first set of pollution maps from Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies told a startling truth – along the rivers and major roadways of Allegheny County, black carbon was lurking in dangerous concentrations.


But, it was an overview, a broad look at a large area. You asked, what’s it like in my neighborhood? Maybe even my street?



The newest set of pollution maps allow you to input your address. What’s the NOx in your neighborhood like? Your street? How is Black Carbon affecting your commute through Allegheny County? Click on the link to the left to find out.

CAPS listened. They reconfigured. And starting today, you can type in your address and see what black carbon and NO2 are like on your block.


The data have been gathered and averaged yearly for three years, 2011-2014. And yes, there have been minor improvements, but the creators of the map want to be clear: This is pretty good view of what our air is still like, today. And as Grant Oliphant, President of The Heinz Endowments says, this is not good enough.


Pittsburgh is on so many “best of” lists, but our air quality typically is among the worst in the nation. We believe we can improve. We believe we can breathe better. Learn more about your air at





Illah Nourbakhsh
Huffington Post
Feb. 26, 2015


I have written before about air quality as an issue for community-centered deliberation and action, and as a place where technology fluency can change the world. Air quality is never far from recent news tropes; but the past month we have witnessed an explosion in coverage, and for good reason. Studies have found new correlations between bad air, ADHD and autism. Add that to well-known epidemiological links to cardiovascular disease and, of course, asthma.


The amount of air quality suffering globally is truly staggering; and now comes the newest report: more than half of all residents of India live in such polluted air that more than three years is shaved off their lifespan. That’s 2.1 billion life-years lost, and that is just India, never mind China, Indonesia and countless other countries. My own beloved Pittsburgh suffers through 230 days of bad air every year, and even San Francisco, blessed by ocean winds, witnessed terrible air quality for nearly two weeks just last month. No doubt: air pollution is causing a global health crisis.


Awareness is always the first step. Just as U.S. air monitors atop embassies in China changed the conversation about air quality countrywide, so we need Americans to see invisible air particulates. Use Federal air quality data to see your neighborhood’s pollution profile, for example using your zip code at For calibration, zero to 10 micrograms is great; 20 is moderate, and the Chicago study showed that 100 means a three-year cut to lifespan. Air pollution is also a major contributor to environmental injustice; a black carbon map of Pittsburgh, released this month, shows that the homes near Pittsburgh’s highways and in our valleys suffer from far greater levels of pollution — the pollution picture correlates frighteningly with a chart of Pittsburgh neighborhoods by income distribution.


We also need to measure indoor air pollution particulates so we learn whether we can control for our children’s asthma triggers. Technology will not save us from air pollution; but technology designed right will empower us to understand our pollution exposure and learn how to triage effectively.


Air pollution is a rapidly heightening concern, and it will not go away with a magic, technological salve. But we must aim our technical inventiveness at creating sensors and visualizations that will empower communities to come to grips with the scale and urgency of the problem, block by block. Particulates kill more in the U.S. than AIDS, breast cancer and prostate cancer put together. Literally 50 percent of us are at risk because of air pollution, although 100 percent of us have the human right to breathe easy.


Illah Nourbakhsh is the author of Robot Futures, Director of the CREATE Lab and Head of the Robotics Master’s Program at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute

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    #news: @PittTweet research finds links between air pollutants chromium and styrene and autism in SW PA kids:

    Environmental Health | Full text | Air toxics and the risk of autism spectrum disorder: the results of a population based case–control study in southwestern Pennsylvania

    Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) constitute a major public health problem affecting one in 68 children. There is little understanding of the causes of ASD despite its serious social impact. Air pollution contains many toxicants known to have adverse effects on the fetus. We conducted a population based case–control study in southwestern Pennsylvania to estimate the association between ASD and 2005 US EPA modeled NATA (National Air Toxics Assessment) levels for 30 neurotoxicants.

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