May. 01, 2020 11:20AM EST
Pittsburgh region is a hotspot for air pollution and COVID-19 deaths: Report
The study adds to recent findings that the disease is deadlier in places with dirty air
The study adds to recent findings that the disease is deadlier in places with dirty air
PITTSBURGH—Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, is among the 10 percent of U.S. counties that have both high relative density of major air pollution sources and high relative rates of COVID-19 deaths, according to a new report.
The report, which used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the U.S. Census, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, was published by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) in response to a recent Harvard study that found Americans with COVID-19 who live in places with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted places.
Nationally, NRDC's report found that the 10 percent of counties with the highest COVID-19 deaths and the highest density of major pollution sources account for at least 114 million people. Counties in Michigan, Louisiana, Colorado, and other parts of the Northeast top the list along with Allegheny County.
Highlighted counties are those that are in the top quartile for both the number of facilities designated by EPA as having high priority violations of the Clean Air Act per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)
Air pollution exposure has long been linked to higher death rates among those with other cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses.
Of the nation's 3,141 total counties (or county equivalents), the report places Allegheny County among 310 counties that meet two criteria: they're included in the top 25 percent of all U.S. counties for COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people, and they're in the highest percentile for density of major air pollution sources relative to population size.
Facilities considered "major pollution sources" under the Clean Air Act include sites that either emit 100 tons or more of any air pollutant, emit 10 or more tons of a single hazardous air pollutant that causes cancer or other serious health problems, or emit 25 tons per year of two or more hazardous air pollutants.
Highlighted counties are those in the top quartile for both the number of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)
To date, Allegheny County, which has a population of 1.2 million, has counted 1,289 cases and 94 deaths from COVID-19. This means that 7.3 percent of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county have died from the disease. At the national level, the death rate for positive COVID-19 cases is around 4.3 percent—though all of these numbers are in constant flux as testing capabilities expand.
"The patterns of COVID-19 deaths are likely not accidental," Kristi Pullen Fedinick, director of Science and Data for NRDC and lead author of the analysis, said in a statement. "Though where you live should not impact how long you live, we see far too often that health disparities are linked to structural racism and economic inequality."
The report also places Allegheny County among the U.S. counties with both the highest relative COVID-19 death rates and the highest density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act, and among the counties with both the highest relative COVID-19 death rates and the highest density of facilities that have been identified as having "High Priority Violations" of the Clean Air Act by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Allegheny County is one of 130 counties that's in the highest percentile for both relative rates of COVID-19 deaths and relative density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act, according to the report. Being in "chronic violation" of the Clean Air Act means three consecutive years of violations between 2017 and 2019.
Allegheny County is also one of 179 counties that's in the highest percentile for both relative rates of COVID-19 deaths and relative density of facilities EPA has identified as having committed "high priority violations" of the Clean Air Act between 2017 and 2019. "High priority violations" are violations so egregious they indicate a need to step up enforcement, with the potential for federal intervention.
Highlighted counties are those in the top quartile for both the number of major facilities per square mile and the rate of COVID-19 deaths per capita. (Credit: NRDC)
The report comes on the heels of the American Lung Association's annual State of the Air report, which ranked the Pittsburgh region the 8th worst in the country for particulate matter pollution. Earlier studies have also placed Allegheny County in the top 2 percent for cancer risk from air pollution nationwide.
While the region has seen a dip in air pollution during rush hour amidst lockdown, an estimated 58 percent of Pittsburgh's air pollution comes from industrial sources, according to the EPA's National Emissions Inventory. Just 10 industrial facilities are responsible for more than 70 percent of the region's industrial air pollution, according to a report from environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment, and many of them—including U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and Edgar Thomson Plants, Universal Stainless and Alloy Products, ATI Flatrolled Products, and the Cheswick Power Plant—are exempt from the state's coronavirus business closure requirements.
Meanwhile, the EPA announced at the end of March that it will allow companies to break pollution laws without penalties during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, prompting widespread concern among public health experts. A coalition of environmental advocacy groups, including NRDC, have sued the agency in response.
"Instead of easing the pain of people, this administration is focused on easing the pain of polluters," Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of NRDC, said in a statement. "There is no excuse for giving polluters a free pass while loved ones all over this country are dying."
The Allegheny County Health Department, which oversees local air quality locally, has promised that it will continue enforcing clean air standards in the Pittsburgh region as usual. The Department did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the NRDC report.
Banner photo: The Pennsylvania National Guard deploying to assist at a nursing home. (Credit: The Pennsylvania National Guard)
In the wake of a confrontation and false accusation against Black birder Christian Cooper by a white dog walker in New York City, a group of Black scientists, birders, and nature enthusiasts came together on social media to create the first ever Black Birders Week.
As natural wonders go, swamps are not high on my list.
I've spent less than 48 hours each in the Everglades and the Okefenokee. Between the bugs, the nearly-liquid atmosphere, and the overall gloom, I'd prefer to admire their ecological grandeur from afar.
So, feel free to call me a dilettante. Give me Yosemite, Yellowstone, a dozen national seashores or lakeshores, wild and scenic rivers, Thomas Edison's historic labs, and scads of other federally protected, publicly venerated places that rank higher on my bucket list.
But I'm still stunned that a long-dormant threat to the Okefenokee—a vast, mostly protected wetland straddling the Georgia–Florida border—has roared back to life.
In the mid-1990's, DuPont floated a proposal to mine titanium ore within a few miles of the swamp's southeast corner. The Trail Ridge, a mile-wide, 100-mile-long minerals-rich mound, beckoned.
The ridge also held down the day job it's had for the past hundred thousand years or so: blocking in the water that makes the Okefenokee Swamp a swamp.
Titanium oxide is probably within a few feet of wherever you're reading this. It's the white in white paper, or the white paint on your walls.
The Trail Ridge of Georgia and North Florida is loaded with the stuff, as well as zirconium, a rare element with a dozen exotic uses, including the making of fuel rods for nuclear power plants. The ridge is a geologic freak—a forested sandbar that's 40 miles away from the ocean.
Critics said that the planned strip-mining of the sandy soil could permanently alter a section of the ridge, imperiling the swamp and the slow-flowing rivers it feeds. Endangered species like the gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpecker could also be at risk.
DuPont's proposal ran into a buzzsaw of grassroots blowback. Bruce Babbitt, Interior Secretary in the Clinton era, led bipartisan political opposition. DuPont placed its plan on hold in 1997, declared it dead two years later, and even donated thousands of acres to conservation groups.
At least 600,000 people disagree with me on the lure of swamps. That's how many people visit the Okefenokee each year, and their swamp-o-philia is being called upon anew. Last year, an Alabama-based company called Twin Pines Minerals applied for the same type of operation.
Three federal agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers—raised questions about Twin Pines' plan.
Conservationists, local governments and residents again barraged the feds. Twin Pines withdrew its permit request and re-filed a less ambitious one, which now awaits federal approval. That's federal approval from Trump Administration-led agencies.
There are two lessons here. First, many environmental victories have to be won more than once. The Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water and Air Act and the agencies charged with enforcement of these and countless others are under assault.
Second, let's say Twin Pines gets its less ambitious plan approved. Tom Horton is a legendary writer and reporter on issues around Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.
Years ago, he mentioned something to me that brought clarity to just how hard it can be to deal with environmental issues. He had covered a local controversy where developers sought to level hundreds of acres of forest, replacing them with upscale homes and businesses.
Local conservationists forced the developers to roughly halve the project, saving hundreds of trees. They claimed victory. A downsized upscale community went in, at the sacrifice of hundreds of un-saved trees causing Horton to wonder: Just how many more "victories" can a healthy environment sustain?
Should it be approved, the Okefenokee mining plan would indeed be smaller than DuPont's 1990's version.
Let's hope no conservationists celebrate the "victory" of a smaller threat.
A new, smaller threat to a treasured spot is no victory.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.
Banner photo: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Jo Jakeman/flickr)
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Particulate matter pollution emitted by Pennsylvania's fracking wells killed about 20 people between 2010 and 2017, according to a soon-to-be-published study.
Pennsylvania is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the U.S. after Texas. Between 2010 and 2017, there were 20,677 permitted fracking wells in the state, about half of which had been drilled. Fracking, another name for hydraulic fracturing, is a process of extracting oil and gas from the Earth by drilling deep wells and injecting liquid at high pressure.
One of fracking's byproducts is particulate matter pollution, also referred to as PM 2.5, which consists of tiny, airborne particles of chemicals that, when inhaled, make their way into the lungs and bloodstream, increasing cancer risk and causing heart and respiratory problems. Exposure to PM 2.5 kills an estimated 20,000 Americans each year.
Previous studies have found that heavily-fracked communities face higher rates of numerous health effects including preterm births, high-risk pregnancies, asthma, and cardiovascular disease—but this is the first to investigate the direct relationship between the local increase in PM 2.5 caused by fracking and deaths from respiratory and heart issues that can be attributed to that increase.
"Our study is not only looking at negative health outcomes, but investigating how fracking actually caused these deaths through increased air pollution," Ruohao Zhang, a researcher at Binghamton University who specializes in environmental economics and the study's lead author, told EHN.
Zhang and a team of four other researchers used satellite data from NASA to calculate daily PM 2.5 emissions from all fracking wells in the state over the seven-year period between 2010 and 2017. To determine how many people died as a result of exposure to those emissions, they used county-level mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paired with established methods for calculating how many of the deaths seen in Pennsylvania during that time period were caused by increases in PM 2.5 exposure.
"The levels of increased PM 2.5 concentrations that came from fracking wells in the state are associated with about 20 additional deaths during that time period," Zhang said. These are deaths that presumably would not have occurred in the absence of air pollution from fracking. The estimated economic loss caused by these additional deaths is around $148 million, according to the study.
Washington County was the most heavily affected county in the state, with an additional 4.26 deaths caused by PM 2.5 emissions caused by fracking between 2010 and 2017.
"When we accounted for airborne spillover of pollution from multiple wells in the same area we found that, overall, fracking made the particulate matter pollution of a three-kilometer area around each well [roughly 1.8 miles] higher by between 1.27 percent and 5.67 percent," Zhang said, explaining that the high end of that spectrum usually reflected a higher density of wells in the area.
While the increase in PM 2.5 was highest closest to the fracking wells, Zhang noted that increased levels of the pollutant were also detectable at least as far as 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) downwind of emission sources.
The study also found that without accounting for "spillover," each individual well caused an increase in PM 2.5 in the surrounding three-kilometer area of between 1.35 percent and 2.19 percent. The higher end of that spectrum generally represents wells in the active drilling phase, while the lower end generally reflects the pollution caused by wells that are already up and running, or in the "production" phase.
The NASA satellite data the researchers used became available about two years ago. Without it, Zhang said, it would have been impossible to calculate the specific air pollution increase caused by fracking in the state due to a lack of continuous, on-the-ground air monitoring systems.
"In the U.S., air quality regulations are highly dependent on ground-based monitors, which only cover a small portion of the whole country," Zhang said, noting that this is especially true in rural areas that tend to be home to lots of fracking. Even in places that are covered by ground monitors, he added, monitoring is rarely continuous—they often only take samples every six, eight, or 16 days.
"There are huge monitoring and data gaps there, allowing for what's referred to as 'unwatched pollution,'" Zhang said. "But this satellite data allows us to continuously monitor air quality everywhere."
The NASA satellite data itself doesn't directly relay air pollution data. Researchers like Zhang look at the degree to which aerosols in the air prevent the transmission of light to determine concentrations of PM 2.5. While this method has previously been used to estimate PM 2.5 levels across the globe or over specific countries or continents, Zhang said, it's most accurate when used to calculate air pollution in a smaller area, such as a single state.
Based on their findings, Zhang said he would encourage local and state elected officials to regulate the shale gas industry to reduce PM 2.5 emissions and protect the health of residents. In the meantime, he said, people living near fracking wells who are concerned for their health can minimize the impacts of PM 2.5 exposure by keeping their windows closed and not exercising outdoors in close proximity to operational wells.
"I would also tell residents in Pennsylvania that if they learn they have shale gas under their property, they should be aware that their decision about whether or not to lease their land for drilling may impact not only their own health, but the health of their neighbors as well," he added.
Zhang also pointed out that while their study focused on deaths caused by PM 2.5 pollution from fracking, the extraction also generates many other kinds of pollution—such as volatile organic compounds and radioactive waste—that can endanger the health of residents and should be accounted for.
"We think it's important to know how every kind of pollutant caused by fracking impacts human health," he said. "We hope that future studies will help us more fully understand the impacts of fracking on local communities."
Banner photo: A resident of Washington County, Pennsylvania and his son approach fracking equipment near their property. (Credit: Kristina Marusic/EHN)
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