When you’re an environmentalist, like me, spring means freshening up the table display for the green fairs, energy conferences, and Earth Day celebrations that invade parking lots, LEED-certified meeting rooms, and repurposed, old brick school buildings all over the city. Native plants are for sale, Rachel Carson’s name is affixed to a march or lecture series at least once weekly, and wrists get sore from signing petitions and postcards to go to the EPA.
For the Pittsburgh region, spring also means receiving bad news from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report, which ranks the cleanest and dirtiest air in our cities. (Pittsburgh always gets bad news.) Angry rebuttals from editors and think tanks are released almost as quickly, questioning methodology, sampling rates, and monitor locations.
Here’s the real truth: it doesn’t matter what the ALA report says. Whether your city is number 1 or number 55, many cities have high concentrations of particulate matter (PM), a pollutant linked to just about every ailment imaginable—like strokes, heart attacks, and cancers. New research is finding links to diabetes and decreased brain function. Our locally-sourced PM, from coal-fired power plants, coking works, and diesel vehicles, is a toxic jawbreaker of black carbon, slathered in heavy metals, sulfates, nitrates, and hundreds of other nasty bits. Benzofluorene sounds pretty, but you don’t want to breathe it.
And yet you are. We don’t need the ALA report or any other ranking to know Pittsburgh is a concentrator of diesel pollution. No matter all of the other advantages cities offer, we have to face the legacies of old trucks, old bulldozers, old buses, old barges, old trains, and mostly old thinking. We have to move the ball forward, win the future, whatever cliché you like best. We have to employ new technologies, find deeper pools of resolve, get more creative in our partnerships and solutions, and keep stating our case: we deserve clean air. (Our latest push is for cleaning up construction equipment—read more here.) Not just for our personal health, but for the economic health of our cities. I moved to Pittsburgh from Seattle, but hesitated because of its reputation for bad air quality. How many other young couples thought of Pittsburgh but chose somewhere cleaner?
What’s the first word that comes to peoples’ minds when they think of your city? Rebirth? Smog? Walkable? Polluted?
Love your city, and work to make that first word one you’re proud of. See you at the plant sale.
Jamin Bogi is Education and Outreach Coordinator for Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) in Pittsburgh, PA.