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Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Theresa Kail-Smith

Q&A about asthma and air quality with Pittsburgh City Councilperson Theresa Kail-Smith

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

4 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.

Theresa Kail-Smith represents Pittsburgh's District 2, which includes sections of Beechview and the neighborhoods of Banksville, Chartiers City, Crafton Heights, Duquesne Heights & Mount Washington, East Carnegie, Elliott, Esplen, Fairywood, Oakwood & Ridgemont, South Shore, Sheraden, West End, Westwood and Windgap. She has been in office since 2009.

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

Kail-Smith: No, but I do have some awareness about the issue. I started an environmental group long before I was elected, and my grandson has terrible asthma and has been hospitalized many times over, so my daughter pays a lot of attention to these things and informs me.

Obviously outdoor pollutants are a concern, but indoor pollutants are, too—things like chemicals from cleaning supplies and smoking in the household are issues we need to address.

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

Kail-Smith: Unbelievably, I don't hear much from constituents about this… To me it's so frustrating, because we could do everything we want locally, but air doesn't remain stagnant—it moves, so we need to look at collective levels [of air pollution].

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

Kail-Smith: When I was on the board of Alcosan I asked them to look into green infrastructure projects and address some of these issues. But as far as City Council goes, this has been mostly championed by Dan Gilman and now Erika Strassburg, my colleagues from the East End where there are a lot of students and this is an issue people are more aware of. I'm not saying we're not aware on our side of town, just that we're dealing with other issues as well.

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?

Kail-Smith: I think there are many concerns. One is the amount of traffic and vehicles we have within the city. I used to work for Pittsburgh Public Schools with state representative Dan Deasy to get bussing to our students, many of whom suffer from asthma. It's almost a catch 22. You're sending more bussing to get them to school, but then you're using more fuel, which contributes to air pollution.

Air quality is something we have been having discussions about at City Council, wanting to know what we can do on the local level to affect change at the national level. Even talking about it helps, bringing it to the table as some colleagues have done previously. We've also been trying to help people understand that some of the things we're dealing with in my district now, like landslides, are the result of the reality of climate change. Helping people understand that things we're going through at the local level are related to the bigger picture will help us advocate for change at the national level.

EHN: Things like traffic certainly contribute, but research shows that 70% of our 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?

Kail-Smith: This doesn't just go to the health department. It goes to the state level, where we have a failure to regulate industries that need to be regulated. Working with the health department is one thing, but they need much larger assistance from the state and federal level where regulations are important. And not only that, but also the way we do business within the city of Pittsburgh, what permits we're issuing and what we're doing in terms of green infrastructure—all those things matter collectively. The health department is just one part of many.

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?

Kail-Smith: Why would that even be a question, honestly? Absolutely we should be making sure our students are prepared in every way possible to achieve and live healthy lives. Whether that's breathing with asthma or having food on the table, all those things are really systematic issues we need to address.

I think making sure children can breathe should be a top priority for everyone. I sent an email when we were having issues with the [Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority] asking for each child to be tested for lead, and now we're addressing that issue. This shouldn't be an issue Dr. Gentile had to bring to the forefront; it's something we should have addressed a long time ago, especially with our asthma rates here being so significant.

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

Kail-Smith: I have, but only because my sister used to work for the health department. But I don't really know what they do. In my opinion, we form forces in response to something we have no control over, but have to shed light on to bring some help in. The fact of the matter is that some of these things have to come from the state and federal level.

We have lots of resources to help kids who already have asthma—we've been giving out the 211 number for people to free air conditioning units if their child has asthma—but I don't know what help we have in terms of prevention.

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

Kail-Smith: I have not heard of it.

EHN: Do you think it's important to advance the conversation about air pollution and asthma within city council?

Kail-Smith: I think it's something we have been talking about, addressing by trying to improve the emissions of the our vehicles our own fleet, addressing when people come before us for permits and development and we're asking questions about green infrastructure and solar panels and bioswales and things like that.

Could there be more that we could do? Every day there's more all of us can do.

Like I said, I have a grandson who suffers greatly from asthma. So these are things I'm concerned about for the many people I represent, but also because they affect me and my family personally.

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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