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For immediate release:
December 3, 2014

 

Breathe Cam Lets Citizens Document Pittsburgh’s
Visual Air Pollution and Its Sources

 

Carnegie Mellon Technology Now Part of The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project

 

PITTSBURGH—A system of four cameras, called Breathe Cam, now keeps a constant watch on air quality over Pittsburgh, providing citizens with a new interactive tool for monitoring and documenting visual pollution in the air they breathe and even tracing it back to its sources.

 

Funded by The Heinz Endowments as part of its Breathe Project, the camera system was developed and deployed by the CREATE Lab in Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. Anyone can access Breathe Cam online, where images of the Downtown, East End and Mon Valley skylines are updated around the clock.

 

Using the interactive controls, people can zoom in on items of interest, whether it’s a hovering brown cloud or individual smokestacks or coke plants. They can scan back in time to observe changes in visibility or to try to find the sources of dirty air. They also can skip back to particular dates and times that have been catalogued since the cameras were installed.

 

The researchers also have developed a computer vision tool to help people identify and quantify events of interest, such as releases from a smokestack. Users can correlate the visual conditions with hourly reports of fine particulate matter, ozone and other pollutant levels recorded by Allegheny County Health Department air monitoring stations.

 

“People can use Breathe Cam to gather visual evidence of what’s happening to the air they breathe, whether it’s for the entire city or for a pollution source that is a concern in their neighborhood,” said Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics. “With a better understanding of the dynamics of our environment, people can work more effectively to improve conditions. This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, but for the sake of community empowerment.”

 

Breathe Cam includes four cameras that produce panoramic images: one atop Mount Washington’s Trimont Towers; another at 625 Liberty Avenue, Downtown; one directed toward the East End from the University of Pittsburgh’s Benedum Hall that was installed in October; and a camera overlooking the Mon Valley from Walnut Towers in Squirrel Hill.

 

“The launch of the Breathe Cam creates for Pittsburgh one of the world’s most sophisticated imaging technologies for visualizing air pollution,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments, which launched the Breathe Project in the fall of 2011 to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. “This powerful tool will help build public awareness about the effects of dirty air on our health and environment, while empowering people to better understand and reduce these impacts in their own communities.”

 

The technology behind Breathe Cam is similar to the CREATE Lab’s GigaPan system, which uses software to stitch together multiple photographs to create a large panorama with incredible resolution. But researchers, led by Randy Sargent and Paul Dille, have upgraded the system so people can explore the panoramas only minutes after the individual images are recorded.

 

“This is the first time we’ve had cameras that can take pictures this rapidly and do so 24/7,” said Sargent, senior systems scientist. “And we no longer have to wait hours to combine the photos into panoramas. Thanks to work by Paul Dille, it takes just five or 10 minutes to process each panorama. It’s enabled us to turn this into a service, not just a technology.”

 

Though people viewing Breathe Cam via their computers can zoom in on objects of interest, the resolution isn’t high enough to allow users to identify people. The researchers have taken pains not to compromise the privacy of individuals or their homes.

 

One computer vision tool will enable users to gather information from the cameras without constantly watching the images. The tool can be set to trigger when something of interest to the user, such as the release of smoke from a coke battery or smokestack, occurs. In addition to monitoring air pollution, the same tool can be used to detect train movement across the city.

 

With electronic cameras now commonplace, many individuals across the country already are using cameras to routinely monitor pollution sources. With Breathe Cam, Nourbakhsh noted, Carnegie Mellon and Heinz have developed a computer architecture for turning these camera feeds into an evidentiary system. He said work is underway to make such a system available to anyone who wants to share their camera feed with it. In addition, the Allegheny County Health Department and local environmental groups are partnering with CREATE Lab to use Breathe Cam technology in their efforts to monitor and improve air quality in the region.

 

Editors: Breathe Cam images, GIFs and video are available for download at http://breathecam.cmucreatelab.org/press

 

###

 

Carnegie Mellon University
Department of Media Relations
Carnegie Mellon University
5000 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
412-268-2900
Fax: 412-268-6929

 

Contact:
Byron Spice
Carnegie Mellon
412-268-9068
bspice@cs.cmu.edu

 

John Ellis, Senior Director of Communications
The Heinz Endowments
412-338-2657
je@heinz.org

 

About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 12,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. A global university, Carnegie Mellon has campuses in Pittsburgh, Pa., California’s Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico.

 
“Snowflakes aren’t the only particles that will be falling in Downtown Pittsburgh this Christmas. A digital piece of artwork of a cascading waterfall of bright blues, pale yellows and shimmery particles will light up the outside of the Benedum Center on Penn Avenue until the end of December.”
 
“People walking along the sidewalk in front of the piece on Saturday night glanced up at it and its projector casually, but were more than likely unsure about the message behind it. Or unaware that at any given moment it could burst into orange and red flames. Those colors come as a result of pollutants in the air.”
 
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Particle Falls Sheds Light On Pollution

The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project today launches artist Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls, a captivating digital-media installation that provides a real-time visualization of air quality.
 
At a time of year when Downtown Pittsburgh is aglow with holiday lights that raise our spirits, the dazzling lights of Particle Falls are designed to raise public awareness about one of the city’s persistent challenges — air pollution.
 
Particle Falls, a video projection measuring approximately 60 feet by 20 feet, will illuminate the Benedum Center façade in the 700 block of Penn Avenue at Tito Way after dusk each night through Dec. 31. The projection features cascading “falls” of blue light overlaid with spots of color that represent fine particulate matter in the air detected in real-time by a monitor across the street. Fine particulate matter, also known as soot, is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that measure just 1/30th the width of a human hair. More bright spots over the falls indicate more particles in the air.
 
“Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 10 percent of U.S. cities for average annual particle pollution, and our region lags far behind most areas in attaining federal standards,” said Phil Johnson, interim director of the Endowments’ Environment Program and director of the Breathe Project, a broad-based coalition working to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. “We felt it was important to bring Particle Falls to a busy Downtown corridor to engage the community in conversation about this problem and how we can work together toward solutions.”
 
Sources of fine particle pollution in the Pittsburgh region include cars, trucks, buses, trains, barges, construction, industrial facilities, power plants and residential wood burning. It is linked to a long list of serious health problems from cradle to grave, including asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, adverse birth outcomes and even premature death. Exposures in Downtown Pittsburgh can be especially acute, as the rows of tall buildings create an urban canyon that traps air pollution.
 
Particle Falls was conceived and designed by digital-media pioneer Andrea Polli, associate professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico. Pittsburgh is the fourth city to host the temporary public artwork, made possible by a $62,500 grant from The Heinz Endowments. The artwork made its debut in 2008 in San Jose, Calif. Pittsburgh is the first city to use the air quality data generated by the installation for research through a partnership with scientists at the Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Production support is being provided by the Office of Public Art and Flyspace Productions.
 
“It’s important to become more aware of what’s happening with our air, and to talk about it,” Polli said. “As an artist, I felt the best way to promote this dialogue was to take air pollution, something negative, and present it as a thing of beauty. I wanted to create a place that was beautiful and enjoyable to visit, but also to present particulate pollution, which is very problematic.”
 
Particle Falls will be open until midnight, rain or shine, through New Year’s Eve. The Office of Public Art will be on-site Tuesday and Friday evenings from 6 to 7 p.m. to provide interpretation of the artwork. Please note Particle Falls will be closed on Nov. 27 and Dec. 24-25.
 
On Dec. 13 from 4 to 6 p.m., an artist lecture and panel discussion will be held at the Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Polli will talk about the process and technology behind Particle Falls and then join a panel discussion about air quality and public health. This event is made possible with the assistance of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. To register for this free event, visit publicartpittsburgh.org or call 412-391-2060, ext. 237.
 
For more information about the project and related events, visit pittsburghartplaces.org/particlefalls.

 
Students in 10 southwestern Pennsylvania counties have the opportunity to show how they could help improve the region’s air quality by participating in the 5th Annual “Let’s Clear the Air Poster Challenge” sponsored by the Southwest Pennsylvania Air Quality Partnership and Pennsylvania Resources Council.
 
All schools in southwestern Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, Westmoreland, and new this year, Greene, Indiana and Lawrence counties) are invited to participate. The topic of the competition will be promoting clean air and alternative transportation.
 
The contest will involve students in grades 4–12 at public, parochial and private schools. Students will learn about ground-level ozone, energy conservation, ways to avoid exposure to air pollution and other topics.
 
In the spring, the winning posters will be displayed at local venues including shopping malls, hospitals and government buildings, as well as posted online. Top winners from each category will win a bicycle, a $100 gift certificate for their teachers to a school supply story and an Air Quality Magic Show assembly for the school.
 
For more information call PRC at 412-773-7156 or visit www.prc.org/posterchallenge.html.
 
Last year, more than 3,500 students attending 48 area schools participated in the poster contest.

GWC-2013-logo-color
The Green Workplace Challenge is back again for another year of exciting competition! If you work for a business, nonprofit, college or university, local government, or a K-12 school in southwestern Pennsylvania, sign up today to start saving money and gaining recognition for energy savings and other green initiatives that add up to cleaner air in the Pittsburgh region.
 
The GWC is a free competition for organizations to track and measure performance in the areas of energy, water, waste and transportation. Every action adds up to big impact. Since 2011, for example, participants saved $7.4 million in energy and enough water to fill Heinz Field 13 feet deep!
 
Everyone is invited to attend the GWC kickoff event on October 29 at Phipps Conservatory. Register at www.gwcpgh.org. The deadline to sign up for the competition is January 31, 2015.

Pennsylvania’s most polluting biomass energy facilities are identified in an online map and searchable database released today by the Partnership for Policy Integrity. Funded by The Heinz Endowments, the database provides information on pollution emissions, pollution controls and permit renewal dates for companies burning wood or other biomass for fuel. The database and a report summarizing its findings are available at http://www.pfpi.net/bioenergy-in-pennsylvania.
 
“Biomass continues to be subsidized and promoted in Pennsylvania as so-called ‘clean’ energy, while the reality is that biomass burners can emit as much soot, toxins and other air pollutants into local communities as a similarly sized coal-fired burner,” said Mary Booth, director of PFPI and the author of the report. “There is no better time than ‘National Bioenergy Day’ (October 22) for people to learn the extent to which taxpayer dollars have been wasted on this highly polluting industry.”
 
The database contains information on more than 100 air permits for biomass energy and wood pellet manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania. Many of the facilities in the database are sawmills and other wood manufacturing facilities with biomass boilers that are allowed to emit as much or more air pollution as a same-sized coal- or oil-fired boiler.
 
The report includes information on the more than $69 million in federal and state subsidies and loans that was allocated in recent years for biomass-burning and wood pellet manufacturing facilities in Pennsylvania. The investigation found that of 38 companies that received support, 19 either no longer exist or have not yet received an operating permit. It is not clear what happened to the funding in these cases.
 
The PFPI report found that almost all biomass burners installed in recent years, including those at businesses, schools, and other institutions that have received grants and loans from the State, have permits that allow them to emit as much pollution as the older industrial biomass burners. Many are located in counties that currently do not meet air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone, and which have elevated rates of asthma in school-age children. Economic modeling highlighted in the report shows that each additional ton of particulate matter pollution emitted by these poorly controlled facilities can impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in health and environmental costs, with financial impacts greatest in counties that already have degraded air quality.
 
“These results tell a dismal story about Pennsylvania air permitting and the lax standards that allow even small biomass burners to be very polluting,” Booth said. “Adding to the problem, the state is subsidizing highly polluting biomass burners to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even in counties where air pollution is already bad. Subsidizing this polluting technology is a waste of public funds, but if the state continues to award such grants, it should at least require facilities to reduce their toxic emissions.”
 
The PFPI report links to guidance from an allied environmental group, Pennsylvania’s Clean Air Council, that helps citizens comment on air permits to the Pennsylvania DEP. The Council has done extensive legal work to reduce pollution from commercial and residential wood-burning.
 
“The adverse health impacts of wood smoke are significant,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of Clean Air Council. “The PFPI database is a great tool that impacted residents can use to take action in their community to protect their air quality.”
 

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were more likely to have been exposed to higher levels of certain air toxics during their mothers’ pregnancies and the first two years of life compared to children without the condition, according to the preliminary findings of a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health investigation of children in southwestern Pennsylvania.
 
This research, funded by The Heinz Endowments, will be presented today at the American Association for Aerosol Research annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
 
“Autism spectrum disorders are a major public health problem, and their prevalence has increased dramatically,” said Evelyn Talbott, Dr.P.H., principal investigator of the analysis and professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health. “Despite its serious social impact, the causes of autism are poorly understood. Very few studies of autism have included environmental exposures while taking into account other personal and behavioral risk factors. Our analysis is an addition to the small but growing body of research that considers air toxics as one of the risk factors for ASD.”
 
Dr. Talbott and her colleagues performed a population-based study of families with and without ASD living in six southwestern Pennsylvania counties. The researchers found links between increased levels of chromium and styrene and childhood autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects one in 68 children.
 
“This study brings us a step closer toward understanding why autism affects so many families in the Pittsburgh region and nationwide – and reinforces in sobering detail that air quality matters,” said Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Endowments. “Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our children’s health is threatened by dangerous levels of air toxics. Addressing this issue must remain one of our region’s top priorities.”
 
Autism spectrum disorders are a range of conditions characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties that typically become apparent early in childhood. Reported cases of ASD have risen nearly eight-fold in the last two decades. While previous studies have shown the increase to be partially due to changes in diagnostic practices and greater public awareness of autism, this does not fully explain the increased prevalence. Both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be partially responsible.
 
Dr. Talbott and her team interviewed 217 families of children with ASD and compared these findings with information from two separate sets of comparison families of children without ASD born during the same time period within the six-county area. The families lived in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties, and the children were born between 2005 and 2009.
 
One of the strengths of the study was the ability to have “two types of controls, which provided a comparison of representative air toxics in neighborhoods of those children with and without ASD,” said Dr. Talbott.
 
For each family, the team used the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) to estimate the exposure to 30 pollutants known to cause endocrine disruption or neurodevelopmental issues. NATA is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing comprehensive evaluation of air toxics in the U.S., most recently conducted in 2005.
 
Based on the child’s exposure to concentrations of air toxics during the mother’s pregnancy and the first two years of life, the researchers noted that children who fell into higher exposure groups to styrene and chromium were at a 1.4- to two-fold greater risk of ASD, after accounting for the age of the mother, maternal cigarette smoking, race and education. Other NATA compounds associated with increased risk included cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic. As these compounds often are found in combination with each other, further study is needed.
 
Styrene is used in the production of plastics and paints, but also is one of the products of combustion when burning gasoline in vehicles. Chromium is a heavy metal, and air pollution containing it typically is the result of industrial processes and the hardening of steel, but it also can come from power plants. Cyanide, methylene chloride, methanol and arsenic are all used in a number of industries or can be found in vehicle exhaust.
 
“Our results add to the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures, such as air pollution, to ASD,” said Dr. Talbott. “The next step will be confirming our findings with studies that measure the specific exposure to air pollutants at an individual level to verify these EPA-modeled estimates.”

 
Most Pittsburgh house tours showcase beautiful interiors, tasteful design, and the glitz and glamour of bygone eras. The 2014 Pittsburgh Solar Tour is a home tour for the new Pittsburgh.
 
SOLAR_PGHtour2014_Goerman_150x150Join PennFuture to experience raw solar power, energy efficiency that saves real dollars, and gasoline-free transportation ideas. Along the way, meet homeowners who believe how their property operates is as important as how it looks.
 
The tour sites will be open on Saturday, October 18, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The self-guided event is free, but please register.
 
This year’s event has five featured tour sites. These locations are all solar-powered, but have a little extra for you to take in, including two American Institute of Architects award-winning homes, an urban homestead (complete with green roof and edible landscaping, Pittsburgh’s largest residential solar installation with a solar 101 seminar in the living room, and a solar-powered library with solar activities for kids and big plans for solar expansion.
 
You’ll also find a listing of solar open houses—these locations include solar homes and businesses with folks on site who will be thrilled to share their experiences with solar energy.
 
The tour is sponsored by Breathe Project coalition member Levin Furniture, whose Monroeville showroom has been powered by solar energy since 2004. Stop by their store—it’s on the tour!

 
How can Pittsburgh be a leader in building the bridge from our fossil fuel-based economy to an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable living?
 
Filmmaker and journalist Kirsi Jansa asks this question–arguably the most critical challenge of our time–about energy transition in her new series of short documentaries called “Sustainability Pioneers.” Jansa was the producer of “Gas Rush Stories,” short documentaries on shale gas exploration, and she continues on her mission to give a human face to our energy policy and energy legacy.
 
Sustainability Pioneers” is funded by The Heinz Endowments and The Fisher Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation. It is produced in collaboration with The Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University.
 
The premiere of Sustainability Pioneers will take place at the Mellon Institute Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon on Tuesday, October 7 from 7-9 p.m. It will be followed by a presentation “Bridging to a Fossil Free Future” by Rachel Carson scholar and energy consultant Patricia DeMarco.
 
Another screening will follow on Wednesday, October 8 at Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room at 477 Melwood Avenue in Oakland from 7-9 p.m. It will be followed by a panel discussion “How to Begin Energy Transition” featuring DeMarco; Grant Ervin, sustainability manager for the City of Pittsburgh; Hal Saville, energy project consultant at Independent Energy Solutions; and “solar citizen” Fred Kraybill.

 
For the third presentation in the series “Climate Change Here and Now,” scientist Ellis Robinson will investigate the origins and effects of atmospheric particles—unavoidable byproducts of the way our society creates and uses energy.
 
Robinson is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in chemistry and mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as co-creater, producer and host of the science podcast “I Wonder.” He is a Science & Engineering Ambassador, a program of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering that aims to connect opinion leaders with local experts, building relationships at the community level on the topic of energy.
 
Often invisible to the naked eye, we notice the presence of atmospheric particles on hazy days or as smoke from a fire. But their impacts are felt far and wide, especially in southwestern Pennsylvania. Average levels of fine particle pollution in the Pittsburgh area rank in the worst 10 percent of monitored cities in the United States, according to analysis by the Clean Air Task Force. Particle pollution has been linked to wide-ranging health impacts, such as asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, adverse birth outcomes and premature death.
 
Ellis will give a broad overview of the global significance of atmospheric particles and then focus on his research at Carnegie Mellon, where laboratory and field experiments (including research on the impact of wildfires) have begun to chip away at unsolved questions about how they form and evolve.
 
The event will take place on Tuesday, October 7 at 6 p.m. at Bar Marco’s Union Hall, 2216 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15222.
 
Please RSVP by October 5.

events
December 13, 2014
“Particle Falls” Lighting Up the Holiday Season for a Difference The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project today launches artist Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls, a captivating digital-media installation that provides a real-time visualization of air quality.   At a time of year when Downtown Pittsburgh is aglow with holiday lights that raise … Learn More
October 29, 2014
Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge 2014-2015 Kicks Off The Green Workplace Challenge is back again for another year of exciting competition! If you work for a business, nonprofit, college or university, local government, or a K-12 school in southwestern Pennsylvania, sign up today to start saving money and … Learn More
October 18, 2014
2014 Pittsburgh Solar Tour   Most Pittsburgh house tours showcase beautiful interiors, tasteful design, and the glitz and glamour of bygone eras. The 2014 Pittsburgh Solar Tour is a home tour for the new Pittsburgh.   Join PennFuture to experience raw solar power, energy … Learn More
October 7, 2014
“Sustainability Pioneers” Documentary Premiere   How can Pittsburgh be a leader in building the bridge from our fossil fuel-based economy to an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable living?   Filmmaker and journalist Kirsi Jansa asks this question–arguably the most critical challenge of our … Learn More
October 7, 2014
Smoke Gets Into Your Eyes (Lungs too!)   For the third presentation in the series “Climate Change Here and Now,” scientist Ellis Robinson will investigate the origins and effects of atmospheric particles—unavoidable byproducts of the way our society creates and uses energy.   Robinson is a recent … Learn More
October 5, 2014
Save the Date: Clean Air Dash 5K Save the date and start logging those training miles! The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) second annual Clean Air Dash 5K on the South Side’s Three Rivers Heritage Trail will be here before you know it. The fast, flat and … Learn More
September 27, 2014
Trade Your Old Woodstove for Gift Cards   The Allegheny County Health Department is offering county residents cash incentives to once again dispose of old wood stoves and outdoor wood-fired boilers that do not meet current national emissions standards. The collection event will be held on Saturday, … Learn More
August 24, 2014
Breathe Project Family Ride at PedalPGH   Biking is a zero-emissions way to get around the city that’s good for the body and for our air quality. In celebration of Pittsburgh as a safe, bicycle-friendly city, we are proud to sponsor the Breathe Project Family Ride at Bike … Learn More
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  • Breathe Project

    Check out this fantastic story in Fast Company showcasing the Breathe Cam and Particle Falls!

    Using Livecams To Mobilize People Against Smog

    www.fastcompany.com

    Pittsburgh has an air-quality problem. Can tech and art mobilize a solution?

    Dec 19th 5:18pm • 1 Comment

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    Don't forget to make your reservations to meet Particle Falls artist Andrea Polli on Saturday, December 13, 2014 from 4 to 6. The event is FREE, but reservations are appreciated at www.publicartpittsburgh.org or by calling 412-391-2060 ext. 237. Hope you can make it!

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  • The Heinz Endowments
    Linda Braund, Communications Manager
    Phone: 412-338-2636
    Email: lbraund@heinz.org
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