Pittsburgh, PA – (WiredPRNews.com) A 12-month Pittsburgh Post Gazette review and analysis of the state’s Department of Health (PA DOH) mortality statistics has shown that 14,636 more individuals died from lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease (during the period 2000 to 2008) than national mortality rates for said diseases suggest is normal, or average.
Those are the facts. The human story behind the facts involves Ralph Hysong, whose son Chad moved his family to Ohio because he wanted to get away from the endless pollution emitted by industrial smokestacks in the area.
According to the elder Hysong, his son is one of the lucky ones. Others, who continue to live in Pittsburgh, particularly in the area of Shippingport, don’t die of old age, but instead of lung disease or heart attacks, Hysong says, and the residue of that airborne pollution pits the paint on cars, the exteriors of homes, and leaves concentrations of arsenic in area soils that make it risky to eat from summer gardens – assuming one could get them to grow.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Air Act, which delineates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) mandate for protecting and improving the nation’s air, the failure of Pittsburgh in particular is a poignant commentary on the limits of law.
For example, according to the PA DOH, the probability of dying from the three diseases mentioned is 10 percent higher, in 13 of the 14 counties sampled, than it is for the nation’s population as a whole. This includes adjusting for the area’s slightly higher rates of cigarette smokers, since smoking is a known (and significant) contributing factor in heart and respiratory diseases.
Counties sampled include Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Clearfield, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland, and the increased risk of mortality has provoked some environmental scientists to ask if air pollution is a cause.
The answer? Very likely, according to John Graham, senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, a national nonprofit focused on air quality and climate concerns. In fact, Graham notes, the 13 counties still rank as one of the most polluted urban areas in the country. Worse yet, the area does not meet federal health guidelines that would limit those airborne pollutants.
The greatest problem, according to environmental scientists like Graham, is the region’s preponderance of coal-fired generating plants that deliver electricity. In fact, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or PA DEP, Pennsylvania has been mining and burning coal for power since the late 1700s.
Add to that the area’s abundant manufacturing base, which also burns cheap local coal for power, and the prevailing winds that deposit fossil-fuel pollution from industrial areas to the west (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois), and the Pittsburgh area’s air pollution burden becomes both considerable and disconcerting.
Experts like Jonathan Levy, an environmental health professor at the Boston University School of Public Health (and also a member of the EPA’s advisory staff), estimate that the area’s current levels of air pollution could be responsible for up to $9.4 billion per year in terms of health impairment.
Additionally, heart and lung diseases are the major cause of death in the U.S., and both are exacerbated by high levels of exposure to air pollutants, and those most affected can be identified by occupational exposure, socio-economic status (those living in poorer neighborhoods have higher rates of heart and lung disease). Influences also include smoking, alcohol, diet, and obesity.
More important, rates of lung cancer are rising year by year, as the legacy costs of smoking and pollution come due, according to LungCancerAnswers.com., which offers advice to sufferers on everything from symptoms to treatment options.
However, thanks to the EPA’s pioneering work in establishing the dangers of typical air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxides and soot – especially particles under 2.5 microns in size, which easily reach the deepest level of the human lung – emissions figures are gradually being reduced, not only in the affected Pittsburgh areas but across the nation.
Director Bruce Dixon, of the Allegheny County Health Department, has called reducing air pollution a “balancing act” between improved health and economic necessity. Jan Jarrett, president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, an environmental advocacy organization, argues that the laws are not working for everybody.