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Study Confirms What Many Long Suspected: Clairton Coke Works Fire Sickened Mon Valley Residents

A new study co-authored by one of GASP’s board of directors confirms what many in the Mon Valley have long suspected: That a 2018 fire that knocked out air pollution controls at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works for more than three months sickened local residents. 

The collaborative study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed asthma exacerbations rose following the catastrophic Christmas Eve fire. 

“In addition to verifying that people living within a 10-mile radius of the Coke Works had higher rates of asthma exacerbations and use of albuterol rescue medication than those living outside the radius, we learned that nearly half of the people with asthma closest to the fire were unaware of the pollution problem and, therefore, unable to take steps to avoid exposure,” lead author Brandy Byrwa-Hill, a doctoral student in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, said.

Before we get into the ins and outs of the study, we wanted to share a little background on the Clairton Coke Works. The facility produces highly refined coal (also called coke) that is used as fuel in the manufacture of steel. Creating coke results in the emission of myriad air pollutants, which are minimized through the plant’s pollution controls. On Dec. 24, 2018, a fire destroyed some of the pollution controls, and, for 102 days, the plant emitted sulfur dioxide at levels 25 times greater than typical emissions. 

But back to that study: The Pitt Public Health team used the Pitt Asthma Institute Research (AIR) registry to collect information from 39 asthma patients living within 10 miles of the coke works and 44 patients living beyond that radius during the six-week span after the fire.

During the pollution-control breach, participants who lived closest to the plant had an 80 percent increased risk of worsened asthma symptoms compared with those furthest from the plant. The difference normalized after the plant was repaired. 

Despite news reports and alerts from the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) following the fire urging people with certain health conditions to take precautions, 44 percent of the participants were unaware of the excessive pollution.  

“When we asked the participants if they would want to know about an environmental disaster, of course they said they would,” said senior author and GASP board member James Fabisiak, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Center of Healthy Environments and Communities at Pitt Public Health. “Our study reveals that there is a need for a more robust notification system that uses many modes of communication so people can make informed, timely decisions to protect their health.”

GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini agreed.

“GASP and fellow clean air advocates have implored the health department for the past several years to improve its public health messaging around air quality issues,” she said. “People need to be able to depend on ACHD to provide guidance on how they can protect themselves from exposure to unhealthy levels of air pollution. The evidence that we need more robust communication from our health officials – and the consequences when there’s a lack thereof – has never been more clear.”

In addition, the study highlighted the benefit of having a pre-existing registry of well-characterized, geographically identified asthma patients willing to participate in research, said co-senior author Sally Wenzel, M.D., chair of Pitt Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. 

“I’d encourage any city or county that is home to a significant point source of air pollution to create a similar registry,” said Wenzel, who also directs Pitt’s Asthma and Environmental Lung Health Institute at UPMC – an organization that collaborated on the study. “People with asthma are particularly sensitive to air pollution, and their experience can be informative to all of us when it comes to maintaining healthy air quality.”

GASP congratulates our board member Jim and his colleagues on the publication of this report. Want to learn more? You can read the entire study here. For even more information, check out some of the associated media coverage:

Editor’s Note: The Allegheny County Board of Health will meet at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, May 5. Several air-quality-related items are on the agenda. Among them: ACHD’s updated episodic weather regulations we mentioned earlier. You can learn more about those here. The BOH will vote on whether or not to send them out for public comment. The virtual meeting is open to the public. Get all the details you need to attend here.

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