The setting was the Grand Staircase Lobby under the mural depicting Industry (oddly enough, on the opposite wall of a pastoral scene depicting Peace) at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh last week. The reason was for the unveiling of a new report revealing Allegheny County’s top 10 industrial operations that foul the air and water we all share. As a Pittsburgh-area pediatrician, I was asked to comment on the health implications of the report. Jonathan Hahn caught a glimpse of PennEnvironment’s “Toxic Ten” report:
Ten facilities are responsible for more than 70 percent of all the industrial air pollution in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, according to the new Toxic Ten report released today by PennEnvironment. That pollution includes heavy metals and other toxic substances that have been linked to health problems such as asthma, birth defects, and cancer. Out of those 10, the Cheswick Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant sited along the Allegheny River, was named the number one most polluting facility, responsible for emitting over 300 pounds of arsenic and over 200 pounds of chromium—in addition to lead, manganese, mercury, and other toxic pollutants—into the air in 2016 alone.
Six of us told our stories and gave our opinions in front of cameras and microphones. Here is my statement:
Good morning. My name is Dr. Ned Ketyer. I am a pediatrician with Pediatric Alliance doing work with the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, SWPA Environmental Health Project, and Physicians for Social Responsibility – Pennsylvania.
Here are some key takeaways from PennEnvironment’s new and updated “Toxic Ten” report:
> Allegheny County still has some of the worst air quality in the United States. In fact, Pittsburgh ranks as one of the top 10 most polluted cities in the U.S. for year-round fine particle (PM2.5) pollution.
> Allegheny County ranks in the top 2% of U.S. counties for cancer risk from air pollution.
> The risk of developing and having flares of asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions is higher here than in other parts of the state and the country. A recent study found that schoolchildren living in proximity to the Clairton Coke Works have nearly double the risk of developing asthma and having flares of their disease in which they miss school, take more medicines, and visit the doctor or hospital more often.
> The toxic chemicals listed in this report come right out of a chemistry textbook — lead, mercury, arsenic, manganese, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, dioxin, and on and on — have very real negative health impacts on people who breathe, eat, and drink in the fallout zones. And that, this report finds, is a considerable number of citizens. Complications of pregnancy, birth defects and infant developmental problems, cancer, heart disease and strokes, permanent neurologic damage, mental illness, premature death — all of these can result from unnecessary exposure to these toxics in our environment.
Who is this report written for?
It is written for our elected officials in the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, for our representatives in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., who are utterly failing to support and fund the agencies and departments responsible for protecting the public’s health and well-being.
This report’s message is aimed at the good-intentioned and smart, but unsupported and underfunded scientists, policymakers, and staff of the Allegheny County Health Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health, and the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection — departments that are failing their fellow Americans who live and work and learn and play here; men, women, and children who have no choice but to breathe this filthy air.
This report is written for the doctors and other healthcare providers who understand that the most important social determinant of health is your zip code. It reminds them that their patients don’t necessarily live and work where they do, and that the health threats their patients face occur with every breath, every second of every minute of every day.
For the citizens of Allegheny County — some of whom choose to live in the shadows of these polluting industries, most of whom do not — this report reveals just how much their local, state, and federal governments, and the ones elected to work on their behalf are epically failing them.
People deserve to be told the truth: You cannot have these types of industrial activities with these quantities of toxic emissions, this number of air quality violations, and this amount of disregard for the public’s health by industry and government, without sacrificing the health of the citizens living and breathing in proximity to these toxic neighbors.
You can’t have it both ways.
Watch the entire press conference here.
(Photo: Elise Peterson-Trujillo)