Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Corey O’Connor

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.

Corey O'Connor represents Pittsburgh's District 5, which includes the neighborhoods of Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, Hazelwood, Lincoln Place, New Homestead, Regent Square, Squirrel Hill South and Swisshelm Park. He has been in office since 2011.

EHN: Did you have a chance to read Breathless, Environmental Health News's recent series on air pollution and asthma in Pittsburgh?

O'Connor: I have not, but it's an issue I'm familiar with. In 2014, I facilitated a public hearing on air quality where we heard from experts and the health department on the issue. It was a really good meeting.

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

O'Connor: That's what drew us to do the public hearing in 2014. We had a constituent who lives near an industrial site, and she could tell the air quality wasn't good. I actually live near there too, but I've been here so long that maybe I'm just used to it, whereas she'd just moved here.

It's tough for us because we don't have jurisdiction when it comes to air quality. We've done little things like no idling bills, changing some laws about doing construction in a way that minimizes air pollution and incentivizes using more environmentally friendly equipment. We do all that, but then you can have one building downtown that's not remotely energy efficient and it just wipes all that out, so I think there's still more we can do.

EHN: Are these issues you've spoken about or worked on within city council?

O'Connor: It does come up from time to time, like that public post-agenda hearing in 2014. There's another one of those coming up in a couple days being put on by Councilwoman Erika Strassburger. The more we talk about it, the more our constituents get involved, which is great. But we still don't ultimately have a say in which industries get regulated locally.

Still, as the largest municipality in county, if we have an opportunity to express our concerns, that's a good thing. And again, what we can do is focus on encouraging more green development, implementing better better tax credits for new energy efficient buildings, improving public transit and using cleaner public transit, things like that.

I have talked to the health department about a number of issues, though not this particular one. When I first started, we partnered on some initiatives around banning smoking in parks and playgrounds.

Another thing we could potentially do as City Council members is draft a "will of council" document or a resolution that would call on the health department or state or federal government to take action.

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?

O'Connor: I don't know, but I do remember hearing those numbers at some point. They're pretty shocking. I think the more we can make people aware of that, the better.

One thing we're thinking about now is, when we start looking toward rebuilding these low-income neighborhoods and communities, how can we include initiatives that will improve air quality? How can we develop green infrastructure, which we hope helps to a degree, and how can we get some of these dirty power plants off of those power grids? We do have funding for things like that in the Housing Opportunity Fund, so if someone wants to build new development and wants to go green or solar, we can help bridge the gap for funding.

O'Connor: Another thing we're thinking about is how to connect the municipalities that surround the city with the city itself. Just like we can't actually issue a citation to a polluter impacting our constituents, we also can't stop storm water from flooding the streets in our neighborhoods as a result of new development that we have no jurisdiction over because it's happening three blocks down in another municipality.

We have a committee that meets every month to try and bridge that gap, which makes different resolutions at each year-end meeting stating what joint initiatives they support. We haven't gotten to that point talking about air quality yet. Last year we were focused on opiates. This could be next, and that might help get the city moving on air quality.

EHN: Are you aware of the Allegheny County Health Department's Asthma Task Force?

O'Connor: I knew they started it, but I haven't been briefed or anything, and wasn't asked to contribute.

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

O'Connor: No, I've never heard of 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?

O'Connor: We could potentially work with schools and encourage them to do something like that, or provide joint funding from City Council as a passthrough. That's probably ultimately up to the school board, but in summertime, we could also consider doing asthma clinics in rec centers or at parks or community pools or summer camps in our districts. That would make a lot of sense to me.

I think any opportunity to help kids is a good idea. And the earlier you can get a diagnosis for something like asthma, the better.

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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