Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Anthony Coghill
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.
Anthony Coghill represents Pittsburgh's District 4, which includes the neighborhoods of Beechview, Bon Air, Brookline, Carrick, Mt. Washington and Overbrook. Coghill has been in office since November, 2017.
EHN: Did you have a chance to read Breathless, Environmental Health News's recent series on air pollution and asthma in Pittsburgh?
Coghill: I was just reading some of the facts [my chief of staff] put together for me from the stories, and oh my gosh, I almost feel like these can't be real. There are so many statistics in here I was floored with. Our rates are just off the charts compared to other places.
EHN: Do you ever hear concerns about air pollution or asthma from your constituents?
Coghill: Not so much in my district, unless there's a building coming down and there will be dust or something. People are more worried about things like roads being paved. But looking at these facts is really shocking—especially if you live in Clairton.
EHN: It's definitely worse in Clairton, but we're all breathing the same air.
Coghill: That's very true.
EHN: Are these issues you've spoken about or worked on within city council?
Coghill: I think councilwoman Strassburger just had a post-agenda hearing on air quality. It's never come up for me on personal level with any other councilmembers at the table other than that.
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. Do you think that Pittsburgh City Council members in general are aware of the scope of this problem?
Coghill: I can't speak for the others, but for me, I was not. Like I said, the facts that Dr. Gentile uncovered are very alarming to me, and I was ignorant to most of them. I didn't realize our air quality was still a problem. Other than the old stigma of the steel mills—but I was hoping we were beyond that by now.
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?
Coghill: Certainly in the most affected areas like Clairton and Woodland Hills, that sounds like a no-brainer. As far as the whole county goes, it sounds like it's bad enough that any initiative would be helpful. I just didn't realize the numbers were this bad.
Free is the magic word there, I think—it always comes down to money... But when you think about it, breathing is more important than your eyesight, isn't it? If this ever come in front of me, I'd be on board with it. It just seems logical to test.
I didn't realize asthma could be so deadly. I just thought it meant you have to carry an inhaler. Again, I plead ignorance until I got read up on this before you called. I'd like to do anything I can to help spread awareness about this issue and improve our health in Pittsburgh.
EHN: Are you aware of the Allegheny County Health Department's "Asthma Task Force?"
Coghill: No. I would be interested in hearing about it and potentially in helping out.
EHN: Are you aware of the Pennsylvania State Asthma Plan?
EHN: Do you think it's important to have a conversation about air pollution and asthma within City Council?
Coghill: Well, I think just bringing it to their attention is important for starters. I would encourage them to read the report. … Since we already have these task forces, we should put them to use.
I'm supportive of anything we can do to help kids breathe. However, when it comes to spending money to remedy the problem, or even doing studies to learn more about it, it becomes a sticky subject around here because budgets are tight. We're all on board with things until we have to spend money on them.
It's a shame—we're such a green city with lots of trees and the three rivers. With how beautiful it is here, you'd think we'd have the best of air. We're also an industrial city. I guess that's the difference. I'm so shocked to learn how bad this problem is. Like I said, I want to do anything I can to help.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.