Disclaimer: Information for this article has been provided by TRIB Live.
By Trish Miralles
Lindsay Carson, a senior at Point Park University, always keeps an asthma inhaler with her as she traverses campus to get to class. She never leaves home without it. In her dorm room, rests a stronger steroid inhaler for when symptoms persist, as well as a semi-portable nebulizer machine in case of a severe attack. Exhausted after a long day of work and classes, Carson reaches for her inhaler that she uses every single night before bed. She says that she hopes to one day wake up to a future with cleaner and less polluted air.
According to the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) website, Pittsburgh remains in the top 10 U.S. cities for worst air quality, with some neighborhoods facing heavier environmental burdens than others. The map on the website shows that air pollution was felt most acutely by Mon Valley residents more than anywhere else in the county, with AQI values often reaching the red, “unhealthy” range. AQI values in the red serve as a health warning for residents in the area at risk of experiencing health effects, with sensitive groups (i.e. those with compromised respiratory issues) at a higher risk of more serious health effects.
A specific pollutant that affects Mon Valley residents is hydrogen sulfide (H2S). H2S is a pollutant emitted from the burning of coal during the coke-making process. Located in the Mon Valley area, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works remains the largest emitter of H2S in the entire state of Pennsylvania, according to a TRIB Live article. As monitored on EPA’s AQI, levels of H2S have surpassed the Pennsylvania state air quality standard of 0.005 ppm twice just two months into 2020.
Carson’s experience with asthma began at age eight during a mile-run activity in her elementary school P.E. class. After noticing her struggling and out of breath, Carson’s gym teacher redirected to the hospital where she was quickly diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. The years following this diagnosis included frequent hospital trips for encounters with certain asthma triggers such as pollen allergies and secondhand smoke.
Now at 22 years old, Carson’s experience with asthma has improved to a level that can be managed simply by regular inhaler use. However, moving to Pittsburgh for college presented a different challenge. When Carson first moved to Point Park from Florida, she recounted using her inhaler “a lot more frequently” but stated that she “did not think anything of it until after learning about Pittsburgh’s extensive industrial history which explains the poor quality of air that still affects city residents to this day.”
Carson is not alone in her experience living in Pittsburgh with asthma. West Mifflin resident Cameron Caterino-Short grew up near a few plants.
As a student-athlete with well-controlled asthma, he always keeps an albuterol inhaler with him to track practice. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, an inhaler should not be taken daily, unless one suffers from asthma that is “not well-controlled.” Caterino-Short expressed that many people with severe asthma sometimes resort to daily inhaler use despite public health recommendation.
“My sister, who has severe asthma, uses her inhaler every day just to be able to breathe,” Caterino-Short said. “It’s not ideal but nothing else works.”
In 2019, the U.S. signed an agreement with the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) to make $200 million in environmental improvements at the Mon Valley Works-Clairton plant.
In February 2020, another class-action settlement was approved between U.S. Steel and Mon Valley residents over air quality.
In response to these reports, ACHD PR officer Ryan Scarpino expressed ‘’our focus right now is on COVID-19 but improving air quality continues to be a high priority on the department’s long lists of tasks.”
According to Scarpino, the ACHD currently has a specialty program dedicated towards monitoring air quality with one of the densest networks in the nation.
Interim department director Ronald Sugar leads a team of over 50 professionals in an effort to add stricter regulations, introduce effective emission reduction plans and reduce air pollution. Their goals are “to introduce more legislation that increases penalties and fines for polluters, requires industries to notify nearby populations, increase resources and legal office staffing for more aggressive emissions enforcement.” To successfully enforce and implement these plans, the ACHD has requested to use $300,000 from the Clean Air Fund this year.