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Expert: Air Pollution's Impact Comparable to Opioid Epidemic

By Mary Shelly
The Tube City Almanac
April 05, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Resident Mark Dixon speaks to Pittsburgh City Council during a special meeting convened to discuss the region's air quality. (Mary Shelly photo/Point Park News Service)

The number of people dying in Allegheny County from exposure to air pollution is comparable to the numbers of people dying from opioid abuse and addiction, said a Carnegie Mellon University professor who has studied air pollution’s effects.

“There (are) approximately 250 attributable deaths each year in Allegheny County from exposure to fine particulate matter, PM 2.5,” Neil Donahue, CMU professor of chemical engineering, chemistry and engineering and public policy, told Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday.

“If you monetize that, that corresponds to about $2.5 billion a year in environmental damages,” he said. “It’s a calamity of the highest order.

The special meeting between members of Pittsburgh City Council, representatives of the Allegheny County Health Department and environmental leaders, was prompted by recent issues at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Plant.

Mark Dixon, a film director and local resident, also testified. He said he often hears reports from citizens about how hard it is to breathe the air.

“It is extremely frustrating that U.S. Steel is somehow allowed to keep breaking the law while citizens are asked to stay indoors,” he said.

Dixon said he frequently schedules his activities depending on the state of the air quality to limit his exposure. He said he is able to do this through apps such as Air Bubbles, SmellPGH, PurpleAir and others. 

Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health for the Allegheny County Health Department, said the county is not meeting federal air quality standards for pollutants such as ozone, sulfur dioxide and the tiny particles of pollution classified as PM 2.5.

The standards are set by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to protect the public from pollutants that can cause heart and lung diseases.

The ACHD works to see that those standards are met and then have to work to meet them again when new standards are released, Kelly said.

Jayme Graham, manager of the air quality program at the ACHD, said the department has a plan to re-issue or renew all operating permits issued under Title V of the federal Clean Air Act by the end of 2020.

That plan will eliminate a backlog of permits that were never issued or renewed, and will verify that all current permits are up to date.

Kelly said the department has noticed over the past few years that “compliance rates were slipping,” at U.S. Steel's Clairton Plant, which makes a fuel known as coke from coal.

In 2018, the county health department issued an enforcement order that not only penalized U.S. Steel more than $1 million, but also required the steel company to show improvements in its compliance with the requirements of its permit or ultimately take equipment off-line.

Leaders of nonprofit organizations who were present at the hearing urged authorities, including the health department, to do more.

Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, said the amount of air pollution is important for those with health issues deciding to live in the area. 

“Air pollution really affects just about every part of your body,” Filippini said. “From asthma, to cancers, to heart attacks and strokes, to diabetes and dementia.”

Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania director of PennEnvironment, asked members of Pittsburgh City Council to help inform the public, so that they can advocate for themselves. 

“To do the hard work and have the political courage to make change and clean up our air, we’ll need a really informed and motivated public to speak out in support of these changes,” Deemer said.

Council Members Corey O’Connor and Erika Strassburger hosted the meeting. “I think it’s great that there are so many people that are interested and we have so much data,” O’Connor said. “The data really helps us set policy.”

Mary Shelly is a McKeesport Area High School graduate and a student at Point Park University. She covered McKeesport Area School District for Tube City Almanac in 2017 and 2018. This article was written for the Point Park News Service and is reprinted with permission.

Originally published April 05, 2019.

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