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Q&A about asthma and air quality with Grant Ervin, Chief Sustainability Officer for Pittsburgh

Our reporting found an asthma crisis in Pittsburgh. What do politicians have to say?

Following the publication of our four-part series Breathless: Pittsburgh's asthma epidemic and the fight to stop it, we reached out to politicians and lawmakers to hear their thoughts on how we can work together to improve the air.


Grant Ervin serves as Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's Chief Sustainability Officer. We were also joined by the city's Senior Resilience Coordinator, Rebecca Kiernan, whose work centers around helping Pittsburgh address issues related to infrastructure development, sustainability, climate mitigation and adaptation, public health and social equity.

EHN: What efforts is this administration currently involved in related to cleaning up Pittsburgh's air?

Ervin: Going back to 2014 when the Mayor took office, one of the key things we understood was that some of the biggest challenges the city was facing were environmental. One of the ways we guided that as admin was creating a transition team that brought a lot of voices to table, and I oversaw the environmental transition team. Air quality was one of the big issues raised—how do we address this issue over the next several years?

We developed a series of plans and strategies around how to mitigate climate change with a climate action plan, which is primarily a mitigation plan. A lot of the work we've done related to resilience strategy focuses on the fact that Pittsburghers face both environmental and socioeconomic challenges.

For example, look at the Eco Innovation District for Uptown, a neighborhood between Downtown and Oakland. Here's a neighborhood that hasn't seen any effective growth or development for maybe two generations, and it's between two major commercial centers in the city, so it also deals with a lot of inherent air quality problems because of its topography along the highway. The plan is to improve air quality in neighborhoods, improve connections, create a more compact development pattern that brings people closer to the city and reduces commuter traffic, and reliance on automobiles while also revitalizing the neighborhood.

Ervin: There's also the city's updated Climate Action Plan, which addresses many sources of emissions… One thing the plan doesn't address is point source pollution, like you see with many of Pittsburgh's industrial sites. Instead, we're focused on improving air quality from an energy standpoint, shifting away from natural gas or coal and toward renewable sources of power for city operations and residents like wind and solar.

Kiernan: We're also working on a project aimed at connecting residents with resources that can help them improve efficiency in their homes.

Pittsburghers spend twice as much on energy bills as anyone else in the country, even though we actually have some of the lowest utility rates in the nation because we're right in the midst of all this energy extraction. People are surprised to learn that it's not a function of overpriced energy. It's a function of using too much because our homes are so inefficient… 50 percent of homes here were built before 1940. So if we address this problem, we can save people a lot of money, and also save a whole lot of energy, which will ultimately reduce emissions. Insulating houses better also contributes to improved indoor air quality, which can help reduce asthma rates.

This also has the potential to save the city and health insurance providers money on health care expenditures.

EHN: While reporting for the asthma series, we looked at a recent study of 1,200 Pittsburgh students in low-income neighborhoods. It found that more than 70% of those kids live in areas with particulate matter pollution levels above World Health Organization annual average thresholds for safety. Is this a problem the administration is aware of? Are there any efforts underway to collaborate with/support the Allegheny County Health Department in their efforts to address this problem?

Ervin: We've recently started to have conversations with the Health Department about a few collaborations. One of those is centered around the role of health equity and understanding data and statistics better so we can make more acute and targeted interventions. The other has been around how they can take what we've done with climate work and extend it countywide. And the third has been about how to begin using Clean Air fund resources.

EHN: Are you aware that the health department intends to use almost 40 percent of the fund to renovate an office building?

Ervin: I hadn't heard that. I don't know enough about it to comment. I will say that they definitely do need a new building, but I believe they are required to make direct interventions to improve air quality issues with those funds.

EHN: Allegheny County recently received all F's on the American Lung Association's 2018 air quality report card for the 19th year in a row. This is obviously a major deterrent to bringing new companies, like Amazon, to the region. What's being done to address it from that angle?

Ervin: We recently had a meeting with a group of local companies the Allegheny Conference pulled together… I think one of the big takeaways from that is that there's an awareness gap. A lot of people just don't know how bad the air is here. Part of the challenge is around creating greater awareness amongst both civic leaders as well as citizens that the situation we currently have is a problem.

EHN: Are you aware of the ACHD's Asthma Task Force?

Ervin: I'm familiar, but not involved. We participate in the air quality plan for the Healthy Allegheny Advisory Group.

EHN: Are you aware of the Pennsylvania State Asthma Plan?

Ervin: No, but the state has huge role to play in this from the standpoint of understanding that the decisions they're making from an "economic development" angle also have negative health repercussions. They might invest a billion dollars in the petrochemical industry, but that's going to have implications downwind. And we have no jurisdiction there—we can't do anything about it.

The proposed Royal Dutch Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County will actually produce the exact same amount of CO2 emissions we plan to reduce through our Climate Action Plan. And that's just DEP-permitted emissions. To be fair, there was something in that location beforehand that wasn't good for the environment either.

But the state had an opportunity to help mitigate those impacts by supporting an industrial facility that could have helped change a generation of energy users, changed the use of plastics in the environment, and improved the air quality here. None of that has happened. Our state isn't taking any leadership around this issue.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you're a politician or lawmaker and you'd like to speak with EHN about air quality and asthma, contact Kristina Marusic at kmarusic@ehsciences.org.

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