A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community

You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the Pittsburgh area who doesn’t either have asthma or have a friend or loved one struggling with asthma.


What’s the connection between our region’s poor air quality and asthma–and what challenges do doctors here face in helping patients manage asthma? What does the latest science tell us about asthma control in Pittsburgh? What impact does it have on high rates of student absenteeism and school performance? What policies and community interventions might help asthma outcomes?


Mark your calendars for Friday, May 16! For the third consecutive year, the Breathe Project will help sponsor a Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community together with Allegheny Health Network.


This full-day conference at Allegheny General Hospital will bring together health professionals, educators and the community to better understand the connection between asthma and outdoor air quality through talks and panel discussions with top local and national experts.


Some of the topics on the agenda include the challenges of asthma control in Pittsburgh; primary prevention of asthma; the effect of ambient air quality on asthma outcomes; asthma disparities; asthma outcomes in inner-city children and community interventions; and the impact of biomass burning on pediatric asthma.


Registration is open, but stay tuned for more details about the lineup of speakers and other events.

Too Early to Celebrate

The welcome news from the Allegheny County Health Department last Friday that the Liberty monitor met the annual and daily federal air-quality standard in 2013 for fine particulate matter is a breath of fresh air. It marks a step forward in the long-term undertaking to move our region from the bottom to the top ranks nationally in air quality ratings.


We at the Breathe Project intend to use this momentum to redouble our efforts to achieve clean, healthy air for everyone in the Pittsburgh region. We realize that despite this important gain, there is still a lot of work yet to do. The race to win consistently clean air is a marathon, not a sprint—and there are many challenging, uphill miles left to cover.


The annual average in 2013 at the Liberty monitor was 12 micrograms per cubic meter, just meeting the annual PM2.5 standard set in 2012 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 24-hour PM2.5 average of 31.1 micrograms per cubic meter at Liberty fell below the EPA standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter set in 2006. However, these data alone are insufficient to begin the celebration.


More data needed


It will take three consecutive years of monitoring data at or below the PM2.5 limits in order for EPA to formally declare that we are in “attainment” of the air quality standards. The point of requiring three years of data is to help distinguish between genuine, long-term air quality improvement and an aberration.


To reach attainment, the Liberty monitor must have readings below the standard for the next two years; already in 2014, there have been several days when air quality in the Liberty/Clairton area entered the “orange” and “red” zones, with dangerously high fine particle pollution levels comparable to Beijing.


On those days, we have received air quality complaints at the Breathe Project from as far away as the East End and the South Hills. As mobile monitoring data from Carnegie Mellon University researchers confirms, what’s in the air we breathe in the Mon Valley doesn’t just stay in the Mon Valley.


Particles aren’t the only problem


There’s no doubt that fine particulate pollution poses a significant health threat to Pittsburgh-area residents, contributing to heart attack, stroke, lung disease, asthma, adverse birth outcomes—and even premature death. But Allegheny County is plagued with a host of other air pollution problems, too:


= Allegheny County cancer risk from air toxics ranks in the top 2 percent in the United States, according to a 2013 report from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities. Air toxics are a class of pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects. There are more than 200 Census tracts in southwestern Pennsylvania with a point source cancer risk over 10 in a million (EPA uses a threshold level of “one-in-a-million” probability of lifetime cancer risk above which it deems to be unacceptable or cause for concern). Industries in the Liberty/Clairton area are a major source of air toxics in our region.


= The county is in nonattainment for both the 1997 8-hour ozone standard (0.08 ppm) and the 2008 8-hour ozone standard (0.075 ppm). Ozone—or “smog”—is harmful to breathe and low levels can be deadly.


= Allegheny County is one of just 38 counties nationwide in nonattainment for the 2010 sulfur dioxide (SO2) standard; SO2 is linked with a number of adverse respiratory effects, and studies show a connection between short-term exposure and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions, particularly in children, the elderly, and asthmatics. In the Liberty/Clairton area, levels of SO2 exceed the federal limit by almost double.


Monitors don’t tell us enough


Monitoring networks are designed to demonstrate attainment of federal air quality standards, and our region’s topography may frustrate the ability to accurately determine air quality for all locations, according to a 2011 report by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force.


Our monitors are located in a small number of strategically chosen sites across the county. But anyone who has navigated the hilly terrain of Pittsburgh knows that our local topography is complex, which differentially impacts our air quality; in general, people living in river valleys that trap emissions tend to have greater exposures to air pollution than people on the tops of hills.


Exposures also vary depending on proximity to local industrial sources, such as power plants or coke plants, and transportation sources, such as highways or heavily trafficked areas like Downtown. Your personal health risk from air pollution also depends on “hyper-local” sources, such as woodstoves and fireplaces.


In other words, the concentrations recorded by our network of air quality monitors are unlikely to be fully representative of the levels of pollution to which the population are actually exposed—especially for people living in hotspot areas.


We deserve better than “moderate”


According to an analysis by the Clean Air Task Force, the Pittsburgh area experienced 239 days in 2013 when the EPA said our air quality was not rated “good.”  On these days (representing more than 65 percent of the year), we were told that our health risk from air pollution ranged from “moderate” to “unhealthy.”


Speaking last May at The Air We Breathe conference held Downtown on World Asthma Day, world-renowned environmental epidemiologist Joel Schwartz of Harvard School of Public Health noted that there is no evidence for a threshold below which air pollution has no health effects. That means that even “moderate” levels of pollution can have very serious—and potentially deadly—impacts on our health.


If we measured Pittsburgh’s air quality against more stringent World Health Organization (WHO) standards—and even the recommendations of EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee of scientists who provides regulatory advice—we would have even more days each year recognized as “unhealthy.”


We deserve clean, healthy air every day—not just 35 percent of the time.


Most Livable City?


While there’s no doubt the 2013 monitor data in Liberty is welcome news, it’s important to keep this “milestone” in perspective.


The health department says, “…air in Allegheny County is the best it’s been since the Industrial Revolution.” That’s the period from 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1940 marking the transition from hand production methods in predominantly agrarian, rural societies to the use of special-purpose machinery for mass production.


The Industrial Revolution raised the standard of living for some people and brought about a greater volume and variety of factory-produced goods. But it also resulted in grim employment and living conditions for the poor and working classes. Children toiled long hours in hazardous jobs. Housing was inadequate, overcrowded and unsanitary. Disease was rampant. The air and water were horribly polluted.


Surely it’s not enough to have the cleanest air since this time in history when our city earned the notorious reputation of “Hell with the lid taken off.” Rather than benchmark our progress relative to two centuries ago, we should look at where we stand today relative to other American cities as a baseline.


Today we know how to put scrubbers on coal-burning power plants and how to reduce air pollution from our large industrial sources. We know how to retrofit diesel school buses and trucks and how to control wood smoke. We know how to improve our energy efficiency and how to make smarter transportation choices. We know how to harness the energy of the wind and sun to make cleaner power.


Just how far behind is Pittsburgh in this century?


Our air ranks in the dirtiest 10 percent of 338 urban areas for average annual particle pollution based on data from 2010-2012, according to a recent analysis by Clean Air Task Force.


It’s not just a problem in the Liberty/Clairton area. Nine out of 10 monitored areas in Allegheny County rank in the worst third in the nation for particle pollution. The monitor in North Braddock was still over the federal limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter from 2010-2012 and didn’t meet the older annual standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter until 2007-2009.


And we aren’t improving as quickly as other urban areas.


Based on 2010-2012 monitoring data, Allegheny County was one of just 53 counties out of 519 nationwide (10 percent) that failed to meet the 2012 annual fine particle health standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, according to EPA. More than half of these counties had already met–or fallen below–that standard a full decade earlier. Moreover, 90 percent of the counties in violation of the older annual standard (15 micrograms per cubic meter) came into compliance before Allegheny County finally did in 2009-2011.


It’s time to stop comparing Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh 200 years ago—or comparing Pittsburgh to our own incremental pace of present-day improvement.


We must instead compare Pittsburgh to other modern cities in the U.S.—and even globally— that are competing with us for the most talented employees and the best companies. We must compare Pittsburgh to the ideal Pittsburgh we all envision for our great city—a city where the air is clean and safe every day and doesn’t jeopardize the health and future of our children with every breath.

Breathe Easier: Port Authority Fleet Cleaning Up




Harmful air emissions from Port Authority of Allegheny County diesel-powered buses have fallen dramatically since 2005 as new, cleaner buses were purchased and older, dirtier buses were retired, according to a new report by M.J. Bradley & Associates. These improvements are expected to continue over the next six years based on planned future new bus purchases.


The report found that between 2005 and 2013, estimated total annual emissions of particulate matter (PM) from the Port Authority bus fleet fell by 7.7 tons—that’s a reduction of 66 percent. During that same time, emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from the fleet fell by 553 tons—a 72 percent reduction.  


These significant reductions are good news for air quality in the Pittsburgh region. Particulate matter is linked to wide-ranging health impacts, including heart and lung disease, adverse birth outcomes and even premature death. Oxides of nitrogen are highly reactive gases that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particle pollution.


Also good news is the report’s findings that 43 percent of PM reductions and 53 percent of NOx reductions were due to retirement of old buses and replacement with cleaner equipment. Today, there are 685 buses operating, and the newer buses have cleaner engines certified to meet more stringent EPA emission standards than the older buses they replaced; average emissions of PM and NOx from the newest diesel buses in the fleet are 90 percent and 96 percent lower, respectively, than for the oldest buses in the 2005 fleet.


In 2010, Port Authority also repowered nine model-year 2003 buses with new, cleaner engines. This retrofit project will result in a reduction of 0.42 tons of particulate matter and 10.56 tons of NOx between 2010 and 2016. Port Authority also operates 32 hybrid diesel-electric buses that get about 25 percent better fuel economy than similar diesel buses.


Unfortunately, a portion of the emissions reductions from 2005 to 2013 is attributable to a reduction in annual fleet mileage by Port Authority buses, which fell by roughly 41 percent in the study period. Approximately 23 percent of the reduction in PM emissions and 19 percent of the reduction in NOx emissions came from service cuts.


But over the next six years, annual fleet mileage is expected to stay fairly steady—and the future outlook is bright when it comes to emissions reductions.


Based on projected deliveries of new buses and retirement of old buses, both PM and NOx emissions should continue to fall over the next six years. By 2019, annual PM and NOx are projected to fall by 90 percent and 95 percent, respectively, compared to the 2005 baseline—and for the right reasons.


Modeling indicates that 70 percent of the cumulative PM reductions and 77 percent of the cumulative NOx reductions between 2005 and 2019 will be due to fleet turnover to cleaner buses and engines rather than cuts in fleet mileage.


In fact, by 2019, all of the Port Authority buses are projected to meet the most stringent EPA PM standards—and 86 percent are projected to meet the most stringent NOx standards.


A robust and reliable public transit system is vital to our clean-air future, getting drivers out of their single-occupant vehicles to reduce the amount of emissions from cars and trucks. But that transit system must also operate as cleanly as possible.Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our health and environment are still threatened by dangerous levels of cancer-causing air toxics, such as diesel emissions.


Allegheny County ranks in the top 2 percent nationwide for cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, with diesel particulate matter identified as a “high priority” air toxic, according to the 2013 PRETA Air: HAPS report by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC).


An earlier CHEC report found that diesel vehicles make up only a small percentage of our region’s total traffic (less than 10 percent), but account for about half of the primary mobile PM emissions and mobile NOx. It identified Downtown Pittsburgh as a diesel hotspot, with levels three to four times greater than other areas of the country, with cancer risk levels well above regulatory thresholds.


That’s why the news that the Port Authority is cleaning up its bus fleet is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Save the Date: The Water-Energy Nexus

Wasting water is like sending energy down the drain. That’s because water utilities use a tremendous amount of energy to treat and deliver water. Then after the water reaches your home or workplace, more energy is consumed to heat, cool and use it.


Letting your faucet run for five minutes uses about as much energy as letting a 60-watt light bulb run for 14 hours, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of this energy comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which creates air pollution.


To save energy and dollars and help clean our air, we need better water sense.


But how will southwestern Pennsylvania’s businesses, municipalities and nonprofits manage increases in global energy and water demands and volatility? What are practical solutions your organizations can adopt now to take advantage of innovative technologies and maintain competitiveness?


You’ll find answers to these questions and more at “The Water-Energy Nexus: Conservation, Innovative Technologies and Practical Solutions” on Thursday, March 27 at Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens. Join Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Champions for Sustainability network, the American Society of Civil Engineers, Pittsburgh Section and the Environmental, Water and Resources Institute for this full-day conference.


The event will address critical water/energy needs. During the conference, Sustainable Pittsburgh also will unveil who is leading in the Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge–the last leader board update before the competition ends in May.


Mayor William Peduto is the keynote speaker. Additional featured speakers include Karen Crofton, principal of industrial practice at Rocky Mountain Institute, and Ed Pinero, senior vice president for sustainability, Veolia North America.  Agenda plus registration are available at www.gwcpgh.org.


Ride Against Smog and Pollution



Whether you hit the trails or the roads, bike riding in Pittsburgh is a fabulous way to see the sights, commute and get a little exercise–not to mention, it’s a zero-emissions form of transportation.


When you ride, you likely strap on a helmet, pump up your tires, make sure your lights are on, and investigate safe routes to your destination. But one safety precaution you might not be taking is finding out about the air quality on your ride.


Cyclists and other outdoor athletes are particularly susceptible to the health impacts of air pollution. If you’ve ever been stuck behind a dump truck or bus, you know the feeling. And what about the higher-than-average levels of air pollution we breathe as a matter of course almost daily in the Pittsburgh region?


For the past few years, Group Against Smog and Pollution has been working to help cyclists and other outdoor athletes in Pittsburgh make the safest decisions possible by creating an interactive GIS map of air quality along popular bike routes. The crowdsourced data were collected from bike-mounted particulate monitors. You can check out the resulting map here: http://gasp-pgh.org/projects/bam/


The map project will get a big boost on April 4, when GASP’s Athletes United for Healthy Air campaign will host the first-ever Ride Against Smog and Pollution! This 12-hour bicycle ride (done in one-hour shifts) will take place along the Eliza Furnace Trail and the South Side segment of the Three Rivers Heritage trail from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. All participants will monitor the air quality along these two trails as they ride.


The findings of the trail blitz will allow GASP to gather a concentrated swath of data and make educated recommendations to athletes seeking to avoid air pollution. It also could help policy makers and developers take action to reduce air pollution for future trail plans.


After the 12-hour event, cyclists are welcome to join GASP at the Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe in the South Side for post-ride festivities. All volunteers also will receive a goodie bag, food and drink. If you are interested in volunteering for a shift, contact Sam Thomas at sam@gasp-pgh.org.

Air Quality Community Forum: With Guest Speaker ACHD Director Karen Hacker

This month’s Air Quality Community Forum–hosted by Residents for a Clean & Healthy (REACH) Mon Valley–will feature guest speakers Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department and Jim Thompson, ACHD deputy director of environmental health.


The meeting will take place February 25 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church at 500 Thompson Avenue Clairton. It’s an opportunity to discuss environmental issues, health concerns and what the public can do to help solve our region’s air quality problems.


For more information, contact Cassi Steenblok at Clean Water Action at 412-765-3053 or csteenblok@cleanwater.org.

Local Faith Groups Divest at the Outlet

No matter how contemporary or traditional their services, every religious congregation plugs in somewhere, sometime. Whether it is running the office coffee maker, lighting the gathering space, copying the newsletter, chilling the coleslaw or projecting the lyrics, faith groups plug in when they need to, and much like the rest of us, usually without giving too much thought to the source of their power.


The electricity to make all those things work comes from somewhere, and in Pennsylvania, we can now choose the source of the electricity we buy thanks to deregulation. Pennsylvania ranks in the top three states–and Pittsburgh is the third worst on a list of 359 cities nationwide–for total mortality due to power plant emissions, according to the Clean Air Task Force.


Purchasing clean energy reduces the amount of fossil fuels burned in generating electricity, and in turn, invests in cleaner our air for healthier communities and a stronger economy.


Breathe Project coalition member PA Interfaith Power & Light (PA-IPL) is partnering with the nonprofit organization Groundswell to help local community groups switch to 100 percent wind energy and save money in the process through the Community Power Program. This project allows faith communities, community organizations, schools–and even small businesses–to buy clean electricity while strengthening their existing budgets.


The program joins congregations together to create a large electricity-buying group. Each congregation still gets its own electricity on its own bill, but they can leverage the purchasing power of the bigger group to get a better deal through a competitive bid process with the utility companies. Past institutions that have switched to 100 percent renewable energy have saved between 3 to 20 percent on their electricity bills through this program, according to PA-IPL.


“They can get a good deal on electricity and insist the electricity they buy supports their values–that it doesn’t pollute the air or water we all share with each other and with future generations,” says Cricket Eccleston Hunter, executive director of PA-IPL.


To make the switch to renewable energy for your faith community, nonprofit or small business, contact Cricket Hunter at chunter@paipl.org or 818-876-2597. The program is being piloted this program in the West Penn Power and PECO service areas, with plans to expand soon. Webinars will be held February 13 at 2 p.m. and February 18 at 11 a.m. for more information. Visit www.paipl.org for details.


Make It a Day On, Not a Day Off



In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, local youth and community groups came together at the Kingsley Association in Larimer in Pittsburgh’s East End for a day of hands-on learning and service focused on air quality and environmental justice.


About 50 students, young adults and chaperones from Shady Side Academy, Garfield Jubilee’s YouthBuild and the East End Youth Advisory Council gathered at the Kingsley Association to learn about the organization’s efforts toward a more sustainable future for the neighborhood through green approaches to community and economic development. These strategies include working to ensure that social inequities do not lead to health disparities from exposure to environmental hazards, including air pollution.


“This air is all of ours,” Kingsley Association executive director Malik Bankston told the participants.


Environmental justice, they learned, is the pursuit of equal justice and equal protection under the law for all environmental statutes and regulations without discrimination based on race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. It means providing equal access to meaningful participation when it comes to environmental issues so that all communities have a voice, explained Fred Brown, Kingsley associate director for program development. It also means working to make sure that environmental and neighborhood planning decisions, such as the placement of toxic facilities, don’t reflect still-existing racial bias in the United States, Brown said.


Participants then learned the basics of air pollution science and about the “state of the air” in the Pittsburgh region through a presentation from the Breathe Project and the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP).


Youth were then organized into six groups. With the help of a neighborhood guide, each group fanned out in a different direction for a walking tour of Larimer with a low-cost particulate monitor–called a Speck–and a map in hand. The Speck was developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab as a tool for citizen science and personal exposure tracking. This device, which measures particle levels in the air, enables people to better understand the quality of the air they breathe by empowering them with real data.




Groups used their Specks to take air quality readings–and marked colored dots on their maps that correlated with particulate matter levels at various points around the neighborhood. They also took observations about what might be causing the fluctuations in their Speck readings. For instance, participants noticed a spike in the amount of particulate matter on busier streets or or when a bus or truck passed by or behind an idling vehicle. The Specks were also GPS-equipped, so the devices took continuous readings throughout the walks that will be used by CREATE Lab researchers to generate air quality maps of Larimer for later analysis.


After returning to the Kingsley Association, participants were challenged to imagine what a greener and more just neighborhood would look like for Larimer, as well as in the communities they call home. They used a software program called ImagineLarimer that allowed them to see the effect of interventions such as trees and community gardens on various quality-of-life indicators in the neighborhood.


“Larimer, in the midst of implementing a plan that envisions the neighborhood as a green sustainable community, was an appropriate context for Pittsburgh youth to investigate issues of air quality and neighborhood development on a day when we celebrate and advance Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work for equality and justice,” said Renata Nelson, a PULSE Fellow for the Larimer Consensus Group and the Kingsley Association.


Overall, it was a wonderful day of creative learning, service and community-building, informed by the power of the new Speck technology.

HotSpotter App Tracks Pollution Sources


Thanks to Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), you now have another tool to make pollution tracking even easier. If you have a smartphone, simply download the free app called SENSR. Then choose the “HotSpotter” project and start submitting photos of pollution “hotspots” that concern you. Your images will be instantly geotagged and located on a map at sensr.org to share information with other concerned citizens. It’s simple and quick to use–and a great way to help GASP keep track of pollution sources in the region.

Air Quality Community Forum: Mon Valley

This month’s Air Quality Community Forum–hosted by Residents for a Clean & Healthy (REACH) Mon Valley–will feature guest speaker Drew Michanowicz from the Center for Healthy Environment & Communities at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.


The meeting will take place on January 22 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the West Elizabeth borough building at 800 4th Street in West Elizabeth, which was recently identified as an air toxics hotspot in our region.


A report co-authored by Michanowicz found that people living in a 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania have a significantly higher than acceptable risk of developing cancer due to exposure to toxic air pollution released by manufacturing processes, energy production and diesel combustion.


While the region as a whole experiences a constant burden of air toxics, the report found that people living in Allegheny County have a cancer risk more than twice—and in West Elizabeth, 20 times—that of those living in surrounding rural areas. In fact, the county ranks in the top 2 percent of U.S. counties in terms of cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, which is a class of pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as respiratory, neurological and reproductive disorders.


These findings are startling, raising many questions about what the report means for our community and what can be done to reduce our cancer risk. Michanowicz will address these issues and answer your questions at the meeting.


And what happens in the air in the Mon Valley doesn’t just stay in the Mon Valley. This is a critical public health issue that impacts people across the Pittsburgh region. On Sunday, January 5, levels of air pollution in the Liberty/Clairton area entered the “red” zone, with the air quality index reaching just shy of measures in Beijing. At those levels, the U.S. EPA warns that everyone may begin to experience adverse health effects of air pollution, with children, older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and those who work or exercise outdoors at particular risk. Impacts that day were being felt as far away as the East End and beyond.


This month’s REACH Mon Valley meeting is an opportunity to express your concerns and talk about what can be done to improve our region’s air quality. For more information, contact Cassi Steenblok at Clean Water Action at 412-765-3053 or csteenblok@cleanwater.org.

Wasting water is like sending energy down the drain. That’s because water utilities use a tremendous amount of energy to treat and deliver water. Then after the water reaches your home or workplace, more energy is consumed to heat, cool …
You’d be hard pressed to find someone in the Pittsburgh area who doesn’t either have asthma or have a friend or loved one struggling with asthma.   What’s the connection between our region’s poor air quality and asthma–and what challenges …
  Whether you hit the trails or the roads, bike riding in Pittsburgh is a fabulous way to see the sights, commute and get a little exercise–not to mention, it’s a zero-emissions form of transportation.   When you ride, you …
This month’s Air Quality Community Forum–hosted by Residents for a Clean & Healthy (REACH) Mon Valley–will feature guest speakers Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department and Jim Thompson, ACHD deputy director of environmental health.   The meeting will …

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