The Challenge

To hear Carnegie Mellon’s Illah Nourbakhsh tell it, things are downright petrifying. “Air pollution across the U.S. is killing more people than prostate cancer, AIDS and breast cancer put together,” he says.

Robotics professor and creator of the revolutionary Breathe Cam, a system of four cameras which documents local air levels 24/7, Nourbakhsh glances out the window of his Newell-Simon Hall office on what looks like a perfect summer day. “Ninety percent of the country has better air than we do,” he frowns. “Fine particulates–you can’t see them across the street, but you can see them accumulated on the horizon.” He flips around a laptop displaying a live image of the Ohio River, the air noticeably brown. “We are essentially drowning.”

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Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon. Photo by Brian Cohen.

That comes as news to a lot of folks. On beautiful days, when compared to the Darkness at Noon photos from pre-1945, when burning soft coal was de rigueur throughout the Ohio Valley–Pittsburgh is a veritable Garden of Eden. Except it’s not.

The Myths

Myth #1: The air is clean.

According to The Heinz Endowments’ Science and Environment Program Director Philip Johnson, Pittsburgh is one of the country’s most polluted areas, on a par with the notorious Los Angeles basin, Central California trough, Cleveland and others. In terms of the infamous–and deadly–PM2.5 (particulate matter), a full 90 percent of the country has better, safer air. “No matter how you add up the numbers,” he says, “how you do the metrics, bad air collects in places you want the best air–river valleys, which serve as troughs for barge traffic, mills, cars, diesel, railroads and coke emissions.”

Rachel Filippini of GASP. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Rachel Filippini of GASP. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Myth #2: Whatever might be here is blowing in from Ohio.

No, it’s not. Some 60 percent of the fine particulate matter here is created here.

“We continue to generate some of the worst air quality in the nation,” says GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) Executive Director Rachel Filippini. Her group educates the public about air quality issues and advocates for change. “It makes people sick. Asthma. Heart attack. Stroke. Autism. It affects every part of a person’s body.”

Also quality of life–those days when the air is laden with bad odors, when we have to close the windows, keep the kids in the house. Swap the zoo trip for the museum.

Suffer headaches. Sick days. Missed work. Missed school.

Myth #3: One person can’t do anything, can s/he?

Sure, you can. These days, you can monitor your air–scientifically. You can lobby public officials at the city, county, state and federal levels. You can demand accountability. You can elect public officials who will work for clean air. You can join the award-winning GASP and keep up on the latest issues and how you can get involved. The more members they have, the more clout they have.

Think of the sea changes caused by grassroots groups like NOW or MADD.

“The health department and local leaders need to hear directly from the people who live, work, and go to school near pollution sources,” says Filippini. Want to know more about the sources of local pollution? Go here.

Myth #4: Clean air costs jobs.

No, it doesn’t. Or doesn’t have to.

It doesn’t mean shutting–or curtailing production–at such major facilities as the Cheswick power plant, Clairton Coke Works or Neville Island’s Shenango Coke Works. It simply means more adroit monitoring, tougher clean air law enforcement, the kind of fines-with-teeth that make it more costly for companies to violate existing laws rather than comply with clean air standards.

“The health department needs to ensure that repeat and egregious violators are dealt with swiftly and that the fines are large enough to be a real incentive to clean up their act,” says Filippini.

It’s not impossible. Just ask the rest of the country, where there’s plenty of industry–and far cleaner air.

The Tools

Backed by The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project, Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, part of its world renowned Robotics Institute, developed and deployed Breathe Cam. Available to the public here, images of Downtown, the East End and the Mon Valley are updated around the clock.

The idea seems simple–four watermelon-sized camera systems documenting the air. Hardly. It took four programmers working full-time three years to develop the technology necessary to create the complex blend of visuals, monitoring, data gathering and information retrieval. Then telling the story so efficiently that virtually anyone can read it. “It’s a media tool,” Nourbakhsh nods, “changing a person from standing on a hill, watching, writing in a notebook, into someone who can create media and show it virally across the internet.”

Using interactive controls, people can zoom in on brown clouds, smokestacks, coke plants; scanning back in time to observe changes.

“People can use Breathe Cam to gather visual evidence of what’s happening to the air they breathe, whether for the city or their neighborhood,” Nourbakhsh says. “This isn’t technology for technology’s sake, but for the sake of community empowerment.”

Philip Johnson of the Heinz Endowments. Photo by Brian Cohen
Philip Johnson of the Heinz Endowments. Photo by Brian Cohen

The Action

“We need to educate, inform, create awareness,” says Heinz Endowments’ Johnson. “If we can’t get the population to acknowledge the issue, we will never achieve source reduction.

“Then we have to show what can be done.”

There’s a welter of different factors–and government agencies–creating a true Gordian Knot. But unlike Alexander the Great’s solution, slashing it simply won’t work. These threads must be picked apart carefully.

Less diesel, including less long-term idling. Cash in the old wood-burning boilers–there are hundreds of them in the region–for newer, more efficient natural gas models. Switch to more efficient light bulbs. Use electric lawn mowers–and better burning backyard barbecues.

“Get involved,” GASP’s Filippini counsels. “You don’t need to be an expert in the Clean Air Act to offer meaningful comments. To see excessive smoke. Smell foul odors. And you should not be shy about reporting them.

“Ultimately,” Filippini adds, “individual voices matter.”

“Ultimately” Carnegie Mellon’s Nourbakhsh agrees, “that’s the kind of democratic push that makes health departments do the right thing. America is still a bottom-up country, with change coming from people, from populist movements.

“In Pittsburgh we can be as forward-thinking as California–reduce factory production in air inversions. Alter train schedules when there’s still winds. By making government understand the economic impact of bad air quality, we will leave them no way out.”

“With The Heinz Endowments, Carnegie Mellon, GASP and Breathe, we have synergy,” Johnson says. “We have a big tent. But we don’t yet have a striking arm.

“Convening a body to advocate for collective change,” he muses, “could be powerful. We’re looking for a high-profile champion.”

The Crusade

Crusades demand focus, alacrity, follow-through. They also require a face, someone with whom the public can identify.

One front-runner is City Councilman Corey O’Connor. While the City of Pittsburgh is not the lead or controlling body for air quality, it can certainly act as leader, lightning rod, force of moral suasion.

To that end, last October Councilman O’Connor took a major–albeit underreported–step with a post-agenda meeting on air quality. While one meeting certainly is not a turning point, it was a positive step, a public hearing in City Council chambers at which experts and citizens addressed the problem.

Corey O’Connor thinks–believes–that with people and government working together something can be done. Will be done.

“I’ve heard the passion of the residents–and the experts,” O’Connor says. “We need to get the rules out there–and enforce them. You can have a law. But until someone gets a ticket, it doesn’t matter.

“We need to use more green infrastructure–more ethanol and hybrids in the city fleet–and in the companies with which we contract.

“We need to change everybody’s mindset so that they see the benefits of clean air. That’s the conversation we have to have.”

The Last Word

The last word is that poor air quality is costing us time, talent, treasure–but we can fix it. Plenty of people are working on it–the Green Building Alliance, Sustainable Pittsburgh, architects, community groups, you name it. And the Mayor has pledged to only build sustainable projects in Pittsburgh from here on in. (See the P4–people, places, planet and performance–conference coverage here.)

It’s a big topic and there is much more to say. But we’ll end with this for now:

“The innovation-based companies that hold the key to our economic future have a hard enough time finding scarce talent without adding the hurdle of trying to lure employees to a community whose immense virtues get lost in a cloud of dirty air,” Heinz Endowments’ President Grant Oliphant has said.

“We can fix this. As a new wave of development comes to town, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the energy we consume, to use more renewable sources and to make our city more sustainable. We have the chance to innovate and design our way past this.

“And we can do it for everyone, because guess what? We’re all drinking from the same half-full/half-empty glass. We all breathe, and we all live here.

“To do this, we don’t need to point fingers. We just need to all start pointing in the same new direction.”

Want to learn more? NEXTpittsburgh Photographer Brian Cohen, along with Scott Goldsmith, Lynn Johnson and Annie O’Neill, photographed the people and places that illustrate the environmental, social and economic effects of air quality in Western Pennsylvania with accompanying essays by Reid Frazier. Their exhibit, In the Air: Visualizing What We Breathe, will open at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on September 17. Stay tuned for more info here. 

Abby Mendelson is a veteran Pittsburgh writer and reporter. A novelist and short-story writer, he is also the author of numerous Pittsburgh-related books, including Arena: Remembering the Igloo, Pittsburgh: A Place in Time, Pittsburgh Prays: Thirty-Six Houses of Worship, Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred, and The Pittsburgh Steelers Official History. As a journalist, he has written on countless subjects in a wide variety of publications, local and national, print as well as electronic.