Cheswick residents outside the Cheswick Power Plant. Photo by Lynn Johnson courtesy of the Breathe Project.

Pittsburgh’s air was once so soot-filled that Downtown office workers would bring a second shirt to work each day, changing midday so they wouldn’t be walking around with a fine dusting of ash on their collars and sleeves.

But while our air quality has improved since that era, residents of southwestern Pennsylvania still face a significantly higher risk of developing cancer, asthma and cardiovascular diseases due to exposure to toxic air pollution.

That’s where the Breathe Project and Breathe Collaborative come in: Created by The Heinz Endowments in 2011, the Breathe Project has just launched a new website offering solid research and scientific data, the latest air quality news, details on community events related to air quality and opportunities to get involved.

The goal is to offer the public “a whole platform of tools to explore their air quality,” says Breathe Project executive director Matt Mehalik, and to make those tools “easy to find and easy to use.”

Along with a searchable database of research, those tools include CMU Create Lab’s Smell PGH app and the Breathe Cam (offering high-resolution images of the Pittsburgh skyline with data on fine-particle pollution in the air), and the opportunity to plug in your local zip code and get a real-time report on the air you’re breathing.

Access to this information (“It’s not ideological,” Mehalik points out. “It’s all sound science.”) can be enlightening for people who had assumed that their air quality wouldn’t be affected by heavy industry unless they lived in a neighborhood close to a plant or factory that’s polluting the air. Air quality is regional, so even miles from a place like the Clairton Coke Works there can be increased incidents of illnesses like asthma, especially in children.

The Breathe Collaborative includes more than 25 different organizations from around the region, but the Project functions as an independent nonprofit under the auspices of the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies. Members include Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture and the Clean Air Council.

The Breathe Project site will connect visitors with the work of Collaborative members. It will “feature several different campaigns,” says Mehalik, “so that if people want to get involved, it’s easy to find out what those campaigns are and how to contact the Breathe Collaborative organizations that are running those campaigns.”

By sharing the latest data and opportunities for involvement, these organizations hope to get the region’s population actively engaged in the fight for better air quality.

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...