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Q&A about asthma and air quality with PA State Representative Summer Lee

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

5 min read

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.

Summer Lee is the Pennsylvania State Representative-elect for District 34, which includes parts of Pittsburgh and sections of many East Pittsburgh neighborhoods including Braddock, Rankin, Forest Hills, Swissvale and Homestead. She was elected in May and will take office in November. (We also recently chatted with Lee about why millennial women keep winning elections.)

EHN: Do you ever hear concerns about air pollution or asthma from your constituents?

Lee: My district includes parts of the Mon Valley. A number of reports about how bad the air is in that region have come out recently, and it's definitely something that more people are talking about now. One report found that breathing the air in the Mon Valley for a day is like breathing two cigarettes.

In this area, you have a lot of kids with asthma, but before those reports came out, people in the community might not have made the connection. I don't think we realized that our asthma rates were so much higher than the rest of the nation and that there was something that we could attribute it to.

We're knocking on doors and talking to folks, and we're starting to see people making that connection, realizing this is because of where we live. It's not just my kid. Where we live is dangerous, where we live is causing us health problems. It's killing us. We're getting a lot more people who are talking about that these days.

Lee: In Braddock, we talk about environmental injustice. You know, Braddock historically is intricately tied to the Edgar Thomson Steel Mill. But it's not necessarily as glamorized for those who've always lived there as it is for folks who come from outside.

In the past, everyone who lives in Braddock has known someone who worked at the steel mill, but everyone also knew someone who has died or who has been injured working at the steel mill. The older people remember the days when the smog was so bad that they had to flee. So while everyone understands that we still need jobs, people in the community don't necessarily have a positive association with the mill.

Now, far fewer people work there, but everyone who knows someone who does also knows someone who has negative health impacts as a result—someone who has asthma, who has COPD, who can't breathe. They're not necessarily the jobs we'd want for people we care about.

Lee: At some point, we have to decide whether we're going to care about the few or the many. We're going to have to make those hard decisions, which doesn't mean anybody is anti-labor. Again, I grew up in Braddock. Our history is labor. Our history is the steel industry. No one is crapping on that history. But we would like to stop dying.

I don't want jobs to go away. I want those companies to be in compliance with environmental regulations. I want them to do what they do the safest way possible. I understand that we need steel. No one is saying that we don't want steel anymore. No, we're saying we have regulations, we have them for a reason. We want you to be in compliance for your safety and for ours. We want you to respect the people in the community that you're in.

EHN: There's a proposal in the works to dig a fracking well on the property of the Edgar Thomson mill now. Is that something you hear from people about?

Lee: When were out knocking on doors during the campaign, we were telling people, "Hey, our school system is in trouble and 35 percent of our kids have asthma while the national rate is eight percent, and there's fracking coming." When I first started, I felt like I was doing a good thing by telling people all of that. But then I started to think I'm making people want to move. They want to leave the district.

But that's a good question for our politicians, right? For those who say we need the fracking because it'll bring jobs, what about the people who will leave our area because they want to live somewhere with clean air?

I have those questions too. Do I want to raise a child in this area, knowing they'll have a higher risk of developing asthma? I love this area. My village is here. This is my culture, these are my people, this is my community. But also, I don't want my kid to be sick.

So do I start a family here to be near my community, or go somewhere else where the air is safer to breathe? It's a tough question, and it's a problem that people shouldn't have to face. It's also a problem that black people disproportionately have to face.

EHN: That's true. Have you heard anything about the Allegheny County Health Department's Asthma Task Force?

Lee: No. But I'm eager to work with whoever wants to get us on the path of sustainability, cleaner air and clean water.

It's also important that if the health department is going to punish local companies that are violating environmental laws, it should be a punishment that's actually a deterrent. If all that happens is that they have to pay a small fine when they're making tons of money, that's not effective. It should be a penalty that hurts them as much as their violations hurt us.

EHN: Are you familiar with the Pennsylvania State Asthma Plan?

Lee: I'm surprised to learn we have one.

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. What are your thoughts on that?

Lee: Unfortunately, it's not surprising. When it comes to protecting children, who are the most vulnerable among us, the United States is almost never in compliance with global standards. And those standards are so very low.

This is supposed to be the greatest country in the world. It's supposed to be filled with the brightest minds in the world, and yet we can't figure out a way of having industry and having the things we need while also having a safe environment? We haven't figured out that we only have one Earth and we can't destroy it.

EHN: A Pittsburgh pediatrician, Dr. Deborah Gentile, has launched a pilot program that uses a simple survey to predict asthma diagnoses in kids. She hopes to see mandatory asthma screenings implemented in all public schools in the county and ultimately throughout the state, similar to vision and hearing screenings, on the premise that kids' ability to breathe is just as critical as their ability to see and hear. What do you think about that idea?

Lee: I think it's a great idea, and I think the only reason we don't already have something like that is because asthma is something that more severely impacts communities of color. When it impacts affluent white kids, we'll get things like mandatory asthma screenings.

We have an inequitable funding scheme here, which means your zip code determines how good a quality of education you get. So if you live in a zip code that has environmental hazards, you're also more likely to live in a zip code that has fewer resources in schools that are in trouble.

Asthma impacts kids' ability to learn and succeed for life. These things have lifelong impacts. Our asthma rates are alarming—this should be being treated like a public health crisis, because it is.

Something like asthma screenings could help kids who've been missing school because they can't breathe get back on track… We would be creating upward mobility for kids in a sense. Allegheny County should be a leader when it comes to things like this.

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

About the author(s):

Kristina Marusic

Kristina covers environmental health and justice issues in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania for Environmental Health News. Her new book, "A New War On Cancer: The Unlikely Heroes Revolutionizing Prevention," uncovers an emerging national movement to prevent cancer by reducing our exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in our everyday lives.

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