Smells like home? Pittsburgh needs to clean its air and stop making excuses

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My husband and I recently went on a trip to Tennessee to visit family. Driving back from any vacation, we usually take Route 43 into the Pleasant Hills/​Clairton area. We have a sad ritual when we get close to home before exiting the highway. We both crinkle our noses and say, “Smells like we’re home.”

When we look in the rearview mirror, we can see clear, blue skies; but out the front windshield, we see a yellow haze to match the smell. I often ask myself, “What am I doing to myself returning home to breathe this air?”

I was raised in Port Vue and moved back there a couple years ago with my husband. In a recent Post-Gazette article (“Toxic Air Takes Its Toll on Allegheny County, Says Report,” Nov. 22), staff writer Don Hopey described the increased risk of cancer from toxic air pollution that my family and our neighbors face. The story reported on new research from the University of Pittsburgh indicating that Allegheny County has a cancer risk from air toxics that ranks in the worst 2 percent in the country, with my community especially in peril.

I have seen similar reports in the past get dismissed because our skies are no longer dark at noon so the air “must be clean,” or because our air quality problems are supposedly just an overly alarming artifact of a monitor wrongly placed in a particularly dirty corner of the county.

My mother has lived in this area all her life. She has always been an active and healthy woman who has never smoked. She was recently diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which means she has scar tissue on her lungs.

As you can imagine, we were all very upset with the news and questioning, “Why?” Why does someone end up with lung disease who is active and healthy, who doesn’t smoke and is always helping others? I realize that it can happen to anyone, but I was devastated.

In hopes of a miracle, I petitioned my friends on Facebook, asking them to pray for my mom’s lungs to heal. I was not prepared for the response.

When we posted that she was sick with pulmonary fibrosis and asked people to uplift her in their prayers, many of my friends who live in the area responded by sharing their stories about one of their loved ones who had the same disease.

At the end of every summer, when I remove my room air conditioner, I have to scrub the window sill because so much soot has built up there. As I do, I hear my mother telling me that, when she was little, neighbors would pay her to hose off their houses to get rid of the soot. Fool me once …

One of the air-quality monitors in our region’s network is located on a South Allegheny School District building near several polluting factories. I don’t have any children of my own, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the air harming the health of the children where I live. I care about the air that we ALL breathe.

A friend’s son attends South Allegheny and plays football. Because he has asthma, it has been a struggle for him to continue playing. Sadly, he is not alone. Eighteen percent of his schoolmates have asthma — compared to a state average of 10 percent. When I read that our air isn’t so bad, it’s just a matter of where the monitor is placed, all I can think is, “Doesn’t my friend’s son deserve clean air, too?”

Not only is a school EXACTLY where a monitor should be, but we also should pay close attention to what a monitor tells us and respond to the problem. The solution is not to blame the messenger or move the monitor.

If our region is going to grow economically, we need much cleaner air. Businesses don’t want to locate in areas that threaten their employees’ health, and the workers we need to fill the jobs of the future are going to choose other cities. I remember reading about Andrew Moore, the head of Google Pittsburgh, saying that it was hard to get high-tech workers to move here because of our reputation for air pollution.

Clean air also is vital to keeping the storied workforce that we already have healthy and productive. The Environmental Protection Agency found that in 2010 alone, nationwide reductions in air pollution prevented 13 million lost workdays and avoided 3.2 million lost school days.

To those people who don’t live in the Mon Valley, this is not just a problem for me, my husband, our families and our friends. One of the frightening discoveries in the Pitt report is that this is a problem for our whole region. It found that places such as Schenley Park and Downtown might be heavily impacted by the industrial sources of pollution that sit in my backyard. The air we breathe doesn’t respect boundaries. Our whole region needs clean air for the growing economy we want and the healthy future our children deserve.

My husband does construction in mills that clean coal. The first thing he does when he comes home every day is blow his nose to try to rid his sinuses of the accumulated pollutants and dust. I can only imagine the havoc it is wreaking in his lungs and throughout his body, and it breaks my heart.

Yet even after years in the mills, his nose can still pick up the toxic smell of home as we come across the Clairton-Glassport Bridge. Sometimes, we are tempted to turn around.

We ask ourselves how can Pittsburgh be a most-livable city with air pollution levels that threaten our lives? How can our community make progress if we don’t stand up for the health of our children and most vulnerable citizens?

We keep coming home, though, because it is with hope and determination — and the belief in collective effort that is the hallmark of the Mon Valley — that we imagine a future with blue skies ahead, not just in the rearview mirror.

Holly McGraw Turkovic is director of youth programs for Pittsburgh Cares (

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