It’s nearly impossible to be a Pittsburgher and not be conscious of the environment around you. Especially in recent weeks, with the environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, so close to the city, sensitivity toward preserving and protecting our region is at a high point.
How can we make sure that the planet stays healthy for the generations to follow us? It’s a question that ebbs and flows, and between the recent train derailment and the heyday of the steel industry, it is one that Pittsburghers ask perhaps more often that many other Americans.
In 2007, approximately 20 to 25 local women had the same questions after attending the Women’s Health & the Environment conference hosted collaboratively by The Heinz Endowments and UPMC. The conference, which allowed attendees to hear deep dives by environmental and health experts regarding linkages between the environment and health, prompted more questions than answers.
This group of women would go on to form Women For a Healthy Environment, a nonprofit organization aimed at tackling the challenges that come with living in one of the most polluted cities in America. The organization focuses on environmental issues pertaining particularly to Southwestern Pennsylvania. But, in recent months, it has expanded its programming north to Erie as well as all the way to Philadelphia.
It would be easier to list the things the group doesn’t try to address than the long agenda of what they do. These women are looking at issues tied to poor city infrastructure, like outdated lead pipes and paint, exposure to radon — a problem all too common with Pittsburgh’s old houses and industrial history — and ways in which schools and parents can best respond to the ever-worrisome effects of climate change, to name just a few.
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women For a Healthy Environment, emphasizes that she’s just one piece of a team where everybody is equal. From a day-to-day standpoint, she’s doing much of the same boots on the ground work as the other members.
“There’s very much a community-based approach to the work that we do, working hand in hand with community members,” says Naccarati-Chapkis, who also represents District 8 on Allegheny County Council. “[For example, I] could be attending a community meeting in the evening and listening in and really thinking about particular environmental strategies. How we can collaborate with others is important.”
Of course, there are organizational duties to accomplish, like communicating with the board, answering emails and putting together reports. Clearly, though, getting out and making connections with the community comes first.
This community engagement leads to events and campaigns. The organization hosts four areas of programming. Two of these, the Healthy Schools Pennsylvania program and the Early Learning Centers, allow the organization to go to local school districts and early education centers to provide training and guidance to reduce the number of environmental stressors present in their facilities.
With its Healthy Homes programming, Women For a Healthy Environment educators help homeowners with children assess the prevalence of toxins in the home and make plans to ameliorate them. The nonprofit’s Health Policy program sees the organization educating local communities on environmental health hazards and advocating for policy changes that could solve them.
Recently, the Healthy Schools PA initiative has received extra attention. In December, the organization hosted its annual Healthy Schools Summit, bringing together local lawmakers, environmental experts, school leaders and parents to advocate for policy change to clean up toxic building materials and reduce poor air quality in schools.
Naccarati-Chapkis says more than 150 school districts participated in the summit. Women For a Healthy Environment encouraged the districts to strategically use funds acquired through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) to invest in cleaning up old buildings, making for safer spaces for children who spend thousands of hours in school.
“We know that we have aging infrastructure all across the Commonwealth,” says Naccarati-Chapkis. “Our school buildings are on average about 20 years older than the national average.”
Another recent win for the organization was the $1.8 million grant it secured through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Healthy Homes Production Grant Program. The organization will use this money to remove hazards like lead paint and pests from the homes of at-risk children; it estimates it will be able to reach 130 homes with the grant money.
In 2021, Women For a Healthy Environment released the Something’s in the Water report, taking Allegheny County to task for the presence of lead in the region’s water system. It has continued this work with the Get the Lead Out, Pittsburgh campaign, prompting more dialogue around much-needed infrastructure overhauls to improve the quality of life of citizens.
In terms of what’s next, Women For a Healthy Environment plans to continue to reach out to a range of communities to drive awareness about the toxins around us that we might not think about. For example, Naccarati-Chapkis talks about going to early childcare centers and helping to swap harmful plastics with glass containers and other easy, sustainable switches.
The organization is also educating firefighters about the safe handling of toxic chemicals used to fight fires.
It’s an ambitious and challenging agenda, but judging from the enthusiasm with which Naccarati-Chapkis talks about the work, the team gets fulfillment from the important task of taking care of our neighbors.