Pittsburgh summit explores health effects of air pollution

Pittsburgh region's air is cleaner than it has been, but it should be much better than it is

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Travelers flying into Pittsburgh can see the dirty brown blanket that is the region's air quality problem, even if those who live under it cannot.

That's part of the problem and a big reason air pollution continues to impact human health in the region, according to Joel Schwartz, an environmental epidemiology professor at the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Although the region's air is cleaner than it has been in a century, it should be much better than it is, said Mr. Schwartz, the keynote speaker today at a regional summit on air quality and health. The summit, at Marriott Pittsburgh City Center, Downtown, begins at 8 a.m. and is free to the public.

"People living here may not be able to see it, but if you're coming into the region from outside of it you can certainly see this hazy stuff sitting on top of the city and region," Mr. Schwartz said. "You can see it from a plane. You can see it from a satellite. You can see the particle haze from space.

"It's too easy for a community that had horrific air pollution to say it's cleaner. Small particle pollution is 50 percent higher in Pittsburgh than in Boston. Why should people in Pittsburgh put up with that? It's perfectly possible to get down to those lower pollution levels because lots of places have."

The daylong summit, sponsored by Allegheny General Hospital and the Heinz Endowments Breathe Project, will include presentations and reviews of studies detailing the regional health effects caused by the region's air pollution over the past 40 years, including its impacts on birth outcomes, cancer, cardiopulmonary illnesses and premature deaths.

"Clearly we have seen in studies the effects of particles at the levels present in Pittsburgh," Mr. Schwartz said in a phone interview last week. "And the health effects are serious -- heart attacks, strokes, death. We're not talking about coughing here."

Other presenters include Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research at Allegheny General Hospital's Department of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, who will discuss the epidemic of asthma in Pittsburgh; and Evelyn Talbott, of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, on pollution's impact on birth outcomes.

Ron White, of R.H. White Consultants Inc. and a senior associate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, will present a first-ever review of 40 years of scientific literature about air pollution effects in the Pittsburgh region; and Albert Presto of Carnegie Mellon University will discuss research that maps air pollution in Pittsburgh and shows high concentrations in some of the city's wealthiest communities.

Mr. Schwartz said that the Pittsburgh region has had some of the highest airborne particle rates in the nation through most of the past decade, and has been consistently in violation of those federal particle standards.

The tiny, nearly invisible particles, which can form from industrial and vehicular gases or emitted as soot, produce health impacts disproportionate to their size because they can be inhaled deeply and absorbed by human lungs, where they can cause or aggravate heart and respiratory diseases and asthma and cause premature death.

Mr. Schwartz said southwestern Pennsylvania is in an "unfortunate position" because it produces considerable industrial pollution, is downwind from industrial and utility plants in Ohio that produce pollutants that are carried into the region, and has hills and valley's that trap the bad air.

He said the problem can be solved if industry installs readily available controls, buses and truck fleets are converted from diesel to natural gas, and power plants stop burning coal and switch to natural gas.

"And federal and state governments have to do more," Mr. Schwartz said. "If a region can't meet standards, they have the authority to require controls and they need to use it. The sooner they do so, the sooner the region will see the health benefits."

Those who wish to attend the summit can register online at www.wpahs.org/asthma-summit or can contact the AGH continuing medical education office for more information at 412-359-4952 or by e-mail: rmiglior@wpahs.org.

region - environment

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


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