So What’s a Little Haze in the Air?

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Hotline, Summer 2002

by Walter Goldburg, GASP President

This article appeared as an Op-Ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 10, 2002.

Fog is one thing, but haze is another. All too often the air is blurred by tiny particles that stay suspended a long time and are easily sucked into our lungs. There they can make serious trouble.

The damaging health effects of these fine particles has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is now limiting allowable levels of fine particulates — those of diameter less than a ten-thousandth of an inch or 2.5 microns. These tiny dust grains, which are called PM 2.5 (the “PM” meaning “particulate matter”), are estimated to prematurely kill 30,000 adults a year.

Of course, it is the most polluted places in the United States that are hurt the most by PM 2.5. Unfortunately, Allegheny County is one of those places. Here the PM 2.5 standard is violated to a greater degree than in any other county in Pennsylvania. In fact, there are only 12 counties, out of 1,000 in the nation, where fine particulate levels are as high as ours.

Fine particulates comprising PM 2.5 can stay aloft for hundreds of miles, so Pennsylvania and New England are strongly impacted by the smoke generated in electric power plants in Ohio. Nevertheless, in our own vincinity, a single source, the U.S. Steel coke plant in Clairton, tips us into large violations of PM 2.5 at nearby monitors. But the rest of us can’t breathe easily either; the PM 2.5 standard is exceeded at nine of the 12 monitors scattered across Allegheny County.

The effect of fine particles on children is especially severe. On high pollution days, there is a jump in the number of their emergency visits to the hospital. It takes only a slight increase in the PM 2.5 level to trigger a large increase in breathing difficulty of those who are asthma-prone. Because this increase in hospital admissions is observed at levels even lower than the new federal standard of 15 microns per cubic meter, some states are moving to set their own tighter standard.

In the United States, lung disease and breathing problems are the leading killer of babies less than 1 year old, and fine particulates are an assured contributor. In highly polluted cities like ours, researchers find that the mortality rate for infants is higher by 10 percent than those for babies born in places where the air is clear. Could this be one reason why infant mortality in Allegheny County is so high?

To be sure, Pittsburgh’s smokiest days are behind us. But we still play in the big leagues when it comes to air pollution.

What can you do about this problem? Urge elected officials to enforce the County’s air pollution laws, even if it requires hiring more Health Department staff to do so. Ask about the Health Department’s serious cut in the technical staff of its air pollution control program; find out why this department no longer employs a single environmentally-trained lawyer to enforce its regulations.

Want to learn more about PM 2.5 and its effects? Visit www.cleartheair.org on the web and click on Fact Sheets and Reports to find the “Children at Risk” article. When the haze looks bad, call GASP at (412) 441-6650; we can do more when we have the backing of concerned citizens.

Local air quality data are distributed by the Allegheny County Health Department. Call them at (412) 687-ACHD and ask for the “Air Quality, 2001 Annual Report.” Lastly, join GASP as an active or even a passive (but financially contributing) member!