Woodland Hills High School senior Robert Grey knows firsthand about the dangerous health effects of air pollution. He lives in Braddock, where diesel truck traffic to a steel mill and other industrial sites in the neighborhood is almost nonstop.
Grey will tell you off the tip of his tongue that one in four children in Braddock have asthma, including three of his five siblings. A few times a year, his sisters and brothers suffer from asthma attacks severe enough to send them to the E.R.
Four days a week after school, the 17-year-old works at Braddock Youth Project, a youth employment program that engages young people in meaningful and sustainable community development projects. The organization is headquartered in a renovated church in Braddock named for Nyia Page, a Rankin toddler who died in 2007 after being left outside in the winter.
At Braddock Youth Project (BYP), Grey is part of the gardening team, which has transformed three vacant lots into lush, bountiful vegetable gardens. Some of the other projects include writing a community newsletter, running a mentoring program for younger children and teaching local kids about healthy behaviors.
Last year, Heritage Community Initiatives, a Braddock nonprofit, received an EPA grant aimed at funding projects to make people aware of environmental issues in their communities. Together with Breathe Project coalition member Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), the organization reached out to the Braddock Youth Project for help in raising awareness about the air-quality problem in Braddock and the Pittsburgh region.
GASP trained Grey, fellow BYP Participant Sharvel Pulliam, program coordinator Jessica Schmid and several others to use handheld monitors to measure the concentration of PM 2.5, tiny air pollution particles in diesel emissions that can travel deep into the lungs. Every day after school for a couple hours, they took readings along Braddock Avenue and also measured the volume of diesel truck traffic there. They also took regular PM 2.5 (also known as soot) measurements at other sites across the heavily industrialized Mon Valley in Rankin, Homestead and at the Waterfront development.
In the course of his project research, Grey says he was shocked to learn that the average lifetime diesel soot cancer risk in Allegheny County is 408 times the EPA’s acceptable cancer level. He also read a report from the national Clean Air Task Force that found that diesel emissions were expected to have caused 162 premature deaths, 230 heart attacks, 2,306 asthma attacks and 13,558 lost work days in Allegheny County in 2010.
“I think about it when I’m walking on Braddock Avenue,” Grey says. “Sometimes I feel like I hold my breath.”
The results of Grey’s project show he has good reason to do so. He found the base level concentration of PM 2.5 along Braddock Avenue never dipped lower than 55 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA standards for PM 2.5 are 35 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period and a yearly average of no more than 15 micrograms per cubic meter.
“We showed that the concentration of PM 2.5 along Braddock Avenue greatly exceeds the EPA’s acceptable limits,” Grey says. “And the amount of diesel vehicles we tallied corresponded exactly to the amount of peaks we saw in our PM 2.5 chart.”
Grey presented his findings at two local high schools and the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. There, he talked about how the installation of diesel particulate filters and diesel oxidation catalysts in trucks and other vehicles could reduce harmful emissions in his community. He also recommended that neighborhood residents walk or bike along the side streets, where PM 2.5 levels were much lower, rather than along Braddock Avenue; it’s what he and his siblings do now whenever they venture outdoors.
When he graduates high school this spring, Grey plans to start his studies to become a paramedic. By working together, we can all help ensure that he will never have to transport anyone in his ambulance suffering from the health effects of air pollution. And we can imagine a day when children of Braddock and throughout the Pittsburgh area will be free to walk and play along any street they choose without fear of health risks from poor air quality. It’s a future all of us deserve.