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Breathe Project: Coalition strives to bring cleaner air to Pittsburgh

By Sara Payne

The Pioneer

Marily Nixon moved to Pittsburgh three years ago with an awareness of the air quality problems the city has, but did not think they would have an impact on her
or her family.

After a short time in the city, Nixon’s daughter developed walking pneumonia.

Not until taking the job as coordinator of the Breathe Project did Nixon realize the connection between the two.

“[The personal experience] makes it seem more urgent in a way,” Nixon said. “I will say I watch the AQI (or Air Quality Index) when I decide when I want to go outside and take a run or bike ride, and that’s not something I’ve done in other places.

The Breathe Project is a community-wide coalition based effort to improve air  quality in the Pittsburgh region.

A leadership group of 25 was recently put together to “select promising solutions” to pursue. They plan to devise a schedule of when they want to see air quality improvements happen, which should be announced by this summer, according to Nixon.

“It’s a big problem, but it’s not a problem we can’t solve,” Nixon said.

Pittsburgh once had a reputation for being a “smoky city,” but the air quality has improved from the days where skies were dark at lunchtime. The Breathe Project was launched in late 2011 to continue the work of the city to improve the air quality and finish the job, said Nixon.

The air quality has improved, but it is still not attaining federal health requirements for ozone, particulate matter and SO2, according to Nixon.

“We’re not improving as quickly as other areas of the country,” Nixon said.

Jennifer Bails, communications coordinator for the Breathe Project, said the project started as a multi-media campaign to gain public awareness and to educate the people of the city that there still is an air quality problem. Now the project is getting its “roots on the ground” through the next phase of working to pursue actual goals of the project on its way to “clean, healthy air for everyone everyday”, which will be put in place by the leadership group.

The Breathe Project currently works with 150 organizations and 18,000 individuals to contribute in their own ways to improve air quality. Bails said the project urges all groups to be part of the solution.

“If everyone’s not at the table, there’s no way we’ll be able to have change,” Bails said in a phone interview.

Solutions range from the individual level—where people are encouraged to unplug electronic devices when they’re not using them or to use a rake instead of a leaf blower—to corporations, including U.S. Steel, which recently installed new towers to reduce pollution substantially, according to Nixon.

“There are things that we can all do,” Bails said.

Despite the better visibly better air quality compared to the city’s past, Nixon warns that pollution levels are still unhealthy for many people in Pittsburgh.

During a recent stair climb at the One Oxford Center building to benefit the American Lung Association, Nixon joined a woman on the team who suffered from asthma. The woman did the stair climb after running an eight-mile race, but the woman had to use an inhaler to complete the physical activities.

“It was a very clear personal reminder that she feels it is really important to be involved in the breathe project because she feels it is important to stamp out the air quality component of that disease,” Nixon said.

Nixon said air quality does not just affect those suffering with asthma. Medical experts are learning more about the health effects of air quality including cardiopulmonary problems and birth outcomes including low birth weights and premature births.

“There’s a full range of health impacts sort of cradle to grave,” Nixon said. “It’s not just the people who have to use the inhaler, and that’s a terrible thing.”


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