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A Dangerous Recipe for Air Pollution in Pittsburgh

Last week, GASP joined the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and several other local groups as NWF released their latest report, “Ruined Summer: How Climate Change Scorched the Nation in 2012.”

The report examines those climate change impacts whose harms are acutely felt in the summer. Heatwaves; warming rivers, lakes, and streams; floods; droughts; wildfires; and insect and pest infestations are problems we are dealing with this summer and are likely to face in future summers. GASP spoke about the link between hotter summers and worsening air quality.

This summer’s hot temperatures have been especially difficult for asthma sufferers and those with cardiovascular disease. We have had the perfect recipe for creating one particular type of air pollution: ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is plentiful when its ingredients (including volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides coming from motor vehicles and industrial emissions) combined with sunny, hot days with little air movement. So far, in Allegheny County, we’ve had 20 days in 2012 in which the ozone level exceeded the national standard of 75 parts per billion. And we still have another month to go in our ozone season. There were only 12 exceedance days recorded in Allegheny County in 2011.

When ozone comes into contact with living tissue like your lungs it attacks and damages the cells lining the airways, causing swelling and inflammation. Some have compared ozone’s effect to sunburn inside your lungs. While children, the elderly, and those with respiratory and cardiovascular disease are the most vulnerable to air pollution such as ozone, all people, even young and fit athletes, are susceptible to ozone’s negative effects. People that exercise outdoors have elevated risk because the longer and more intense the workout, the higher the ozone dose delivered to the lungs. This leads to higher risk of a decrease in lung function, the onset of lung inflammation, and the risk that their athletic performance will be impaired.

Continued global warming could make it even more difficult to meet the ground-level ozone standards in the future. In addition to weather patterns being more favorable to ozone formation, some emissions of ozone precursors are expected to increase as the demand for air conditioning and the risk of wildfires increase, and as high temperatures cause more VOCs to offgas into the air. Global warming will make it that much more challenging for cities like Pittsburgh, which already struggles with air pollution, to reduce ozone.

The time is now to reduce carbon pollution and to protect and enforce the Clean Air Act. Last week’s news that our vehicle fleet in the U.S. will get much cleaner in the next few decades was great to hear, but the new regulation only addresses a portion of the problem. Threats to our air quality come from many sources, from the tailpipe of a diesel truck, to the smoke stack of a local coal-fired power plant, to the compressor engine at a natural gas drilling operation. The push for improved air quality can’t come from environmentalists alone. Policy-makers, industry, and individuals all have important roles to play in improving our region’s and our nation’s air quality. What are some things that we can do locally?

Curb diesel emissions, by ensuring that publicly subsidized projects in the city implement clean construction legislation. The black carbon in diesel emissions directly absorbs incoming solar heat and is a potent greenhouse gas.
ALCOSAN should work with the EPA and municipal and community leaders to add green solutions to the plan for fixing the sewers, which will benefit air quality.
The natural gas industry should take steps to minimize emissions from its operations, many of which are not only toxic on their own but are also greenhouse gases.

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