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Experts: Air pollution still makes Pittsburgh area a riskier place to live

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By Timothy Puko
Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh may be one of America's most livable cities, but air pollution still makes the area a riskier place to live, according to a presentation scheduled Tuesday.

Allegheny General Hospital and the nonprofit Breathe Project will host researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and several local institutions in the Marriott Pittsburgh City Center, Downtown, to talk about air pollution's impact on Western Pennsylvania. For the first time, a collective review of 42 years of air pollution statistics and trends in Pittsburgh will be presented by consultant and Johns Hopkins scientist Ron White.

The review will highlight points known by many area health care officials, but too often forgotten by the public:

• The city's air pollution has contributed to low birth weights and early deliveries.

• Pittsburgh is 17th in the nation for its number of neighborhoods with a high cancer risk.

• Air pollution in the area continues to exacerbate heart and lung disease, causing scores of premature deaths.

“We still have a problem with air pollution here,” said Dr. Deborah Gentile, a pediatric asthma expert at Allegheny General Hospital who will give the first presentation, starting at 8 a.m. “We really need to work together as a community to try and solve it.”

Pittsburgh has made dramatic improvements in air quality since earning the name of the “Smoky City,” complete with pollution levels that killed people and turned daytime black. Average soot pollution has dropped by about a third at monitors around Allegheny County from 2000 to 2011, data show.

By next year, Allegheny County projects it will meet federal clean-air standards for the first time since their 1997 creation. But the county's forecasts are just that. They rely on business trends and certain rules that are in flux. Speakers at Tuesday's event say they hope the area continues the push for improvement.

Gentile will talk about asthma. Keynote speaker Joel Schwartz of the Harvard University School of Public Health will talk about the effect of air pollution on mortality. White and others will reveal research on air pollution.

Albert Presto, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University's department of mechanical engineering, leads a team of researchers who drive around the city and county in a van doing mobile air monitoring to provide a broader sampling of conditions. Their efforts show air problems of different types all over the county.

Clairton and Neville Island, for example, are known for pollution problems. But Presto said early research shows there are other hot spots, including concentrations of the carcinogen benzene in the city's East End and Allegheny River towns like Shaler and Etna.

Different types of chemicals gather in different places, Presto said.

Even the amount that settles over a river valley is vastly different from that gathering around hilltops, he said, meaning Western Pennsylvania needs to think about diverse solutions.

“Sometimes we think of these problems and people trying to distill them into one number,” Presto said. “In reality, it's a complicated problem and it takes a lot of work to get a handle on it.”

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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