Steubenville revealed its secrets in historic pollution study
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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Donora and Springdale have played historic roles in the nation's environmental movement, and their influences have been documented in the history books.
But a third place in the region, not as widely known for its role in pollution history, arguably holds a spot of equal importance.
This Jefferson County community is famous beyond being Dean Martin's hometown. The city of 19,015 along the Ohio River was the spot where science figured out how dramatically pollution affects human health.
In 1948, 22 people died in Donora, Washington County, after a weather inversion trapped deadly levels of zinc-plant pollution in the Monongahela Valley for days. The tragedy eventually led to enactment of the Clean Air Act, creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and always has served as a defining event in creation of the nation's environmental movement. That movement received another boost in 1962 with publication of Springdale native Rachel Carson's classic "Silent Spring."
Steubenville, 38 miles west of Pittsburgh, surrendered its secrets decades ago to researchers who stood on the corner and watched all the pollution go by for nearly 20 years, and proved to a dubious world that particulates killed people at higher rates than ever predicted.
Harvard University's Six Cities Study, conducted from 1974-1988, with a follow-up study completed in 1993, included Steubenville, where researchers recorded population data, including gender, age, smoking rates and occupational exposure. They also placed air monitors in homes and measured people's exposure rates. In addition to Steubenville, the cities studied were Watertown, Mass.; Portage, Wis.; Topeka, Kan.; Kingston/Harriman, Tenn.; and St. Louis.
Of those cities, Steubenville recorded the highest particulate levels and worst air quality. Topeka had the best. So, it's no surprise that Steubenville had the highest mortality rates while Portage and Topeka logged the lowest.
The study also linked higher mortality rates to cigarette smoking, lack of education, occupational exposure, body-mass index and other factors. But differences in mortality levels proved significant, based solely on inhalable fine particles and sulfates.
"Exposure to air pollution contributes to excess mortality," the famous study concluded, noting its findings provided "impetus to the development of strategies to reduce urban air pollution."
Subsequent studies helped refine results and the mortality formulas used to tighten federal pollution standards. Other results gleaned from Steubenville data showed that mortality rates declined when pollution declined.
"The Harvard Six Cities Study was the biggest and the best," said James Slater, a Franciscan University professor who worked on the study in Steubenville. "It was big stuff, and I'm proud of it."
Pollution levels in Steubenville have been improving ever since Ohio power plants began installing scrubbers to reduce smokestack emissions. Yet, as for Steubenville's air quality today, Dr. Slater said, "It's still polluted."
Once home to a steel mill, the city no longer has its own major source of pollution. But it still receives pollution from the Sammis power plant to the north near Stratton, Ohio; the Cardinal power plant to the south in Brilliant, Ohio; with the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Co. coke plant, and a Koppers Co. operation that turns coke tar into chemicals, situated across the river in Follansbee, W.Va.
More pollution arrives from six power plants, all within 80 miles of Steubenville and forming a semicircle west to north. Pollution from yet another six power plants along Lake Erie near Cleveland also can ride lake winds into Steubenville.
Despite the city's role in historic research, city health officials still downplay pollution's impact on residents' health.
Steubenville Health Commissioner Patricia Reda attributes Jefferson County's ranking as one of Ohio's most unhealthy to socioeconomic factors -- "personal choices and behaviors" -- with 29 percent of city residents who smoke, 31.5 percent who are overweight and nearly 32 percent who are obese.
Without a doubt, these factors play major roles in poor health outcomes.
While Steubenville's role in pollution research never will overshadow Dean Martin's fame, it does suggest two conclusions: Memories are made of this, and you're nobody till somebody studies you.