At today’s Allegheny County Board of Health meeting, Ben Avon resident Ted Popovich emptied a bag overflowing with surgical masks onto the conference table at the Clack Health Center in Lawrenceville.
It was a symbolic gesture of the strong support that exists in the county for the board to enact tougher Air Toxic Guidelines. Each mask–all 800 of them–bore the name of a county resident who signed a petition calling for these regulations to be strengthened.
“I’m nominating myself as a poster boy,” said Popovich, who lives downwind from the heavily industrialized Neville Island. “Since moving back here five years ago, I’ve been diagnosed with environmental allergies and asthma–never had it before–and this past week I was diagnosed with moderate to severe ischemia, or blockage of the arteries…which research says can result from exposure to fine particle pollution.”
When a business in Allegheny County wants to build a facility that will emit toxic chemicals into the air we breathe, they must first get a permit from the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD). The ACHD has a set of rules it uses to decide whether to grant these permits to protect the public health of country residents. These rules—or Air Toxic Guidelines—were written in 1988, and they are based on science that is even older.
We have learned a lot about toxic chemicals in the last 30 years—and none of it is any good, according to Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania Director of Clean Water Action. “The more we know about the effects of these toxic chemicals on humans, the worse we know they are for us,” Hoffman says.
The ACHD has been trying to update the air toxic guidelines for more than five years. In 2009, a committee of environmentalists, academics, community leaders and industry representatives presented updated guidelines to the Board of Health that had been several years in the making. That attempt failed for political reasons, and a new 20-member committee has been trying to reach a consensus since January 2010.
Popovich and environmental groups like Clean Water Action and Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) are calling for Air Toxic Guidelines that include:
= An updated list of toxic chemicals released in the county and the latest scientific knowledge about the effects of these chemicals;
= A recognition of the effects of other pollution sources nearby the proposed facility that is seeking a permit;
= A recognition that some parts of the county have borne more than their share of the effects of toxic pollution—Clairton and Avalon are two main examples; and
= Some process that would incentivize reductions in the total amount of toxic pollution in the county.
Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP, told the health department board today about the importance of considering the cumulative effects of pollution sources when voting on the revised guidelines.
“Once you have a copy of the Air Toxic Guidelines, we ask that you review it carefully and not settle for an Air Toxic Guidelines that does not take cumulative impact from multiple sources into account,” she said. “Human bodies don’t discriminate when they take pollution in. We are affected by cumulative pollution and so should be regulated as such.”
Not being able to reach a consensus on the new guidelines in time for today’s meeting–especially the provision to consider the cumulative impact from existing sources–means at least two more months will pass in which permits will be issued using the out-of-date rules, environmental groups worry.
Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, is the chair of the committee revising the Air Toxic Guidelines. He said his group will be meeting again soon and “hopefully one of these days can come to closure.”
The next Board of Health meeting will take place on July 11. Meantime, you can click here if you are interested in adding your name to the online petition being circulated by a network of local environmental groups calling for stronger Air Toxic Guidelines in Allegheny County.