Pittsburgh health summit finds link between pollution, health problems

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High levels of air pollution make the Pittsburgh region a risky area to live when it comes to asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to studies presented by a parade of researchers at Tuesday's public health summit Downtown.

The researchers, who spoke at the day-long meeting sponsored by Allegheny General Hospital and the Heinz Endowments' Breathe Project, said myriad studies show an unquestioned link between poor health outcomes and air pollution, even pollution at lower levels than those found in the region today.

Ron White, a senior associate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and owners of R.H. White Consultants Inc., told an audience of 200 that his review of scientific studies done since 1970 consistently shows that public exposure to Pittsburgh's air pollution has resulted in "adverse health effects," including premature death, exacerbation of lung and heart disease resulting in hospitalization and emergency room visits and reduced infant birth weights.

Evelyn Talbott, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, cited a handful of local and national studies that found a link between pollution levels and low birth weights.

And due to the region's elevated levels of pollution -- lower than it's been for a century but still among the highest in the nation for airborne particles and ozone -- Mr. White said studies found a significantly elevated cancer risk in excess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulatory threshold level of one in 1 million.

"All studies found a cumulative cancer risk and all found that risk exceeded the EPA thresholds for concern," Mr. White said.

Although Pittsburgh's air is much cleaner than it has been, and last year met federal fine particle pollution standards, Mr. White said the region's health risk assessments remain valid for pollution levels today.

"As science has progressed, we've seen lower and lower pollution level standards adopted by the EPA and the World Health Organization," Mr. White said. "Looking ahead, we will continue to find adverse health effects at lower and lower levels of pollution and the number and kinds of people at risk will also increase.

"It won't be just the old and young who are at risk even at low pollution levels, but also those who are diabetic, obese, are under stress and have nutritional issues."

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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