Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Deb Gross
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.
Deb Gross represents Pittsburgh's District 7, which includes sections of the Strip District, Polish Hill, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Friendship, Stanton Heights, Morningside, and Highland Park. She has been in office since 2016.
EHN: Do you ever hear concerns about air pollution or asthma from your constituents?
Gross: Absolutely. While I haven't taken a deep dive on asthma specifically yet, I am aware that it's a problem. The rate that sticks in my mind is that up to 25% of children in some Pittsburgh communities have asthma, which is outrageous. We need to operationalize actions we can take now to address this problem. We can't just have long-range goals when it comes to improving air quality.
I really try to think about it in terms of local actions. What are the steps we can all take to improve air quality? Different levels of government have differing abilities to take action around this. But my constituents take action around this issue almost daily when you look at all the things they're doing individually and through neighborhood organizations.
In my district, we're thinking about things like improving the local climate and improving air quality by increasing the tree canopy, improving efficiency in the food economy, and reducing emissions from transportation.
We're especially focused on transportation, since that impacts fine particulate matter and ozone pollution, and we have advocates working on this issue almost daily. District 7 constituents try not to use their cars. I'm told by Bike Pittsburgh that we have over half of their membership. Every year my capital budget requests are about pedestrian safety, bike paths, and improving public transit throughout the district.
EHN: That's all wonderful, but research shows that 70% of the region's air pollution comes from specific industrial sources of emissions. The health department is responsible for regulating those, but is that something you're interested in helping to address?
Gross: Absolutely. There's a McConway & Torley foundry in my district, where they smelt scrap metal and make train couplers. The emissions from that plant impact my entire district, and many of my constituents are very concerned about it. People have written to me with concerns about neurotoxins with the heavy metal emissions from that plant. They've been taken to court and we've had public hearings. For a few years, we've been advocating for the health department to reduce the amount of emissions they're allowed to produce and reissue their operating permit.
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?
Gross: Clearly, it's our job in any local government to advocate for the most vulnerable members of our populations, which includes disadvantaged communities and children, wherever they are. So I believe we should work to reduce industrial emissions, especially by moving away from fossil fuels, which are also contributing to air pollution.
I can't speak for other City Council members, but I do think we can use our voices, certainly even if these facilities aren't in our specific districts. We still have taken an oath of office to support and work to protect public health and work for the common good. I believe that it's on all of us to work on these issues.
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?
Gross: I absolutely would support it. We know if you have a decrease in the oxygen levels you should be getting, it impairs your ability to function. That's especially concerning with kids, who still have developing bodies.
EHN: Are you aware of the Allegheny County Health Department's Asthma Task Force?
Gross: No—thank you for telling me about it. I'd like to see what their action items are, and I would welcome suggestions for action items. None of us are experts in everything. We're always looking to get more information.
EHN: Are you aware of the Pennsylvania State Asthma Plan?
Gross: No. I didn't realize we had one.
EHN: What more can be done to move these conversations forward in the region, and within City Council?
Gross: I think you're right that we should all be applying pressure on these industrial sources of pollution, but I still want to be optimistic about the ways we can clean up our own systems.
So while things like tree canopy and soil remediation might not be immediate solutions to the asthma problem, the actions people can take in their own backyards and communities really are important. Tree canopy is one of our best air cleaners. So I think it's important to do both things.
I'm also deeply concerned we're moving in the wrong direction with transportation. We cannot keep increasing vehicle miles traveled on a per capita basis and have cleaner air… Pittsburgh was built before many people had cars, and many neighborhoods, especially the ones I represent, have plenty of local assets that make it easier to live your life without getting into a car. As local governments, one of the big capacities we have is land use control. That's not up to the federal government or the county or the state. Your municipality is your responsibility.
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 email@example.com.