This reader has been following our recent PediaBlog posts regarding outdoor and indoor air pollution and she is concerned:
I heard a very disturbing report about the air quality in Allegheny County on “Essential Pittsburgh” (WESA 90.5). In particular, it outlined the top 10 toxic polluters in Allegheny County, TWO of which are in Bridgeville, just up the road from the Chartiers office of Pediatric Alliance (and my house)! I’ve attached a copy of PennEnvironment’s report entitled “Toxic Ten.”
What is your take on this report? I have been in contact with the Allegheny County Health Department and while they followed up with me promptly, they were rather dismissive of my concerns, as well as this report. Specifically, they claimed that the chromium output of Carpenter Powder Products was not accurate. (Just 4 pounds from the last test the ACHD had on file, as compared to the 268 pounds that Carpenter SELF-REPORTED to the EPA in 2013. Why would they mistakenly self-report numbers that make their pollution output look 67 times worse than it actually is?!)
I wanted to bring this to the attention of the Pediatric Alliance physicians and staff because I know you all to be trustworthy and knowledgeable. I am hoping that you can put some of my fears at ease, as I live just a half-mile from two of these “toxic ten” with my 3-year-old daughter.
Thank you for sharing with us your concerns regarding PennEnvironment’s “Toxic Ten” report. I agree that it’s very disturbing but it’s not information that should come as a shock. Western Pennsylvania has a long and dirty heavy industrial history.
It’s remarkable when I hear people who minimize the public health problems caused by air pollution say, “The air is so much cleaner now than it was 50 years ago.” Well, the air looks cleaner anyway, because soot-causing industries have either been forced to clean up their black carbon (particulate matter) emissions (eg. coal-fired power plants, due to government regulations that have saved untold numbers of lives) or have gone out of business (eg. steel plants). While there is still way too much soot pollution on top of way too much ground-level ozone, it is obvious that the situation regarding soot has improved. What seems to have gotten worse the past few decades, due to the influx of high-technology manufacturing plants that have replaced the “dirtier” (read “sootier”) older carbon-spewing factories and power plants, are these other chemicals (VOC’s, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, etc) and heavy metals (arsenic, chromium, manganese, nickel, lead, mercury, etc) that are being emitted in measurable and unsafe levels.
What people need to realize is:
— Even if you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Black soot from a smokestack or a truck’s exhaust doesn’t exactly disappear — it just gets diluted by the surrounding “cleaner” air.
— What goes up does come down. Air pollution comes down and lands in the water you drink, and on the soil where your children play and where your food is grown. Black carbon (soot) comes in many different particle sizes. We know that chemicals and heavy metals piggyback themselves onto particulate matter. When the particles are 2.5 microns or smaller (PM 2.5) they, and their toxic cargo, easily enter the smallest passages in our lungs and make their way into our bloodstream.
— Only one of the “Toxic Ten” industries is a power plant. The rest are modern, high-tech industries which are scattered diffusely around Allegheny County. There are more of these factories today than ever before, not just in this county, but across the state and the nation as well. Just because you don’t see a soot-spewing smokestack near a factory or business doesn’t mean it’s not emitting dangerous quantities of air pollution.
— Earth is a closed system: What happens here stays here. It shouldn’t be surprising that when the atmosphere gets used as an open sewer for two-and-a-half centuries, some things are going to accumulate and have effects on the climate and on our health. CO2 accumulates, Earth warms; heavy metals, VOC’s, PM 2.5’s accumulate, people get sick with heart and lung problems, cancer and other problems, and die prematurely. The science is not complicated.
— There is a lot of denial going on regarding environmental issues right now — I think you’re getting that from the unfortunate response from the health department. Part of it is political correctness. A lot of it is that most of us like our high tech products, our warm homes in the winter and cool homes in the summer, and the rest of the things that define our high standard of living. To admit that what is making us materially prosperous is also killing us is too much for many people to contemplate. Besides, the air “looks” cleaner!
I wish I could reassure you that you and your children are safe from air pollution in Bridgeville. I can tell you that the problem is everywhere. Air pollution is being emitted from more locations in this county, country, and planet than ever before, and air pollution doesn’t recognize borders. We’ve got soot under better control in Allegheny County, yes, but not everything else. I live in Washington County — a mostly rural area that is ground zero in the Marcellus Shale region. Between the many thousands of natural gas wells and that have sprouted up in the county in the last decade, and the many thousands of diesel-spewing trucks and machines related to this heavy industry, my home is literally surrounded by thousands of small-to-moderate-sized pollution-emitting “factories” spewing black carbon, VOC’s and other chemicals and heavy metals.
Unless or until people wake up and smell the pollution around them (hint: air isn’t supposed to smell like anything), and unless or until physicians wake up and begin to factor in environmental exposures as potential explanations for their patients’ physical and psychological problems, and unless or until politicians get their heads out of the sand and do all they can do to protect the public’s health and welfare first, then awareness is likely to stay very low — as is the likelihood that things will change any time soon.
Our reader follows up:
You can search your proximity to the toxic ten sites at www.toxicten.org & also sign a petition urging the Allegheny County Health Department to do more about this type of air pollution.
Would you also mind suggesting to your readers, that they should contact the Allegheny County Health Department and file a complaint if they notice any unusual smell or if they live near one of these facilities? I know that personally, I was never sure who to contact in that type of situation so I thought it would be helpful to others. There is even an online form that makes it very simple to submit a complaint.
Thank you again for acknowledging my concerns & helping to raise awareness about this and other important issues. It is much appreciated.
Listen to Essential Pittsburgh on WESA 90.5 FM from October 26, 2015 here.
Read PennEnvironment’s report on Allegheny County’s “Toxic Ten” here.