Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Erika Strassburger
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.
Erika Strassburger represents Pittsburgh's District 8, which includes the neighborhoods of Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.
Strassburger has been in office since April, 2018, but served as Chief of Staff to the previous representative of District 8 prior to that. She also previously worked with the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment.
EHN: Do you ever hear concerns about air pollution or asthma from your constituents?
Strassburger: It certainly is something I hear from constituents about with increasing frequency. I don't know what to attribute that to. It's impossible to say whether that's because I made it part of my campaign platform and have an environmental background, or because it's becoming a more pervasive problem, or because people who are new Pittsburghers aren't used to having to deal with the type of air quality problems we have here and are feeling a need to voice their opinions. There's also been a concerted effort by local and statewide grassroots organizations to bring the public's attention to this issue for a very long time.
EHN: Is this something you've spoken about within city council?
Strassburger: It is. So I'll mention a caveat for all of this—although air pollution and air quality and health are things I care deeply about, I also recognize that these things fall under the jurisdiction of the Allegheny County Health Department. That's not an excuse, but I do recognize that. I have a number of things in my sights I haven't been able to fully act on yet, but I'm eager to get several initiatives off the ground.
Next week I'm holding a public hearing in partnership with PennEnvironment about air quality, specifically as it relates to a proposal from the EPA to remove the "California option" from the fuel economy standards. That option allows states to choose to use EPA standards, which are less stringent, or the same standards as California, which are more stringent. If they remove it, Pennsylvania would be handcuffed to having lower fuel standards. Even though it's an EPA issue, there's an opportunity for public comments to be submitted to the EPA through the video that will be taken at the hearing.
EHN: That's great. Are you aware of the Allegheny County Health Department's Asthma Task Force?
Strassburger: I'm not. I'm still kind of in information-gathering mode, figuring out where there are opportunities to partner. I'd be glad to hear from them and learn more about that.
EHN: Are familiar with the Pennsylvania State Asthma Plan?
Strassburger: I haven't seen that either, but again, it's something I'd be happy to learn more about.
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?
Strassburger: I have a great amount of respect for Dr. Gentile. I know of her work and have seen her speak. I think it's a good idea—having the data is half the battle. If we can use something like that to gain a real, comprehensive understanding of where asthma rates are the worst in the region, we can really work to address the root causes of it… I'd love to support something like that at the city level.
Squirrel Hill and many eastern parts of the city are affected very intensely by both smell and other effects of the Clairton Coke Works plant. I think a lot of constituents from my district want to discuss that. I can't speak to other council members' relationships with the Health Department, but it's certainly a relationship and a partnership that I'd like to pursue. It doesn't need to be an antagonistic relationship—I'd like to be able to build a partnership and help create shared resources that can support the efforts of the county to clean up the air.
While we don't necessarily have formal jurisdiction over stationary sources of pollution like the Clairton Coke Works, we do have control over parts of the transportation sector. While the port authority is a county function, we in City Council can think about how to design streets with air quality, walkability and bikeability in mind, and thinking about how to improve access to public transit in parts of the city that can't handle any more single occupancy vehicles.
We can also focus on air quality when it comes to our city buildings and incentivizing large companies to build greener buildings or retrofit olderbuildings to use less energy, which results in lower emissions. We're working on partnering with several nonprofits to upgrade Pittsburgh's residential building stock as well, to make homes healthier and more energy efficient, and create better buffers to outdoor emissions.
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.