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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Is this why my wife has Asthma??

A New England Journal of Medicine study finds that increased heart risk is linked to air pollution. The WSJ also has a nice writeup on the a study, and being a resident of Pittsburgh - the city at the top of the list of highest annual levels of outdoor fine particulate matter,(in other words, the bad stuff that comes from soot), I have a vested interest in this subject.

I have read advisories against daytime jogging in other large cities, (Los Angeles, Atlanta come to mind) and I have known for years that Pittsburgh had a higher than normal level of particle pollution, but I've never really pinpointed why we still have poor air quality with the steel industries being long gone and why nothing has been done about it.

First of all, what exactly is particulate matter and where does it come from? Why should Pittsburghers care about this? Here is the wikipedia definition, lots of good info here on this and it also states the health effects of particulate matter in our air:

"The effects of inhaling particulate matter has been widely studied in humans and animals and include asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular issues, and premature death."

Getting back to the source of our pollution problem in Pittsburgh, a city our young mayor wants to be known as "Green" Pittsburgh. The most likely primary source of this pollution is our fossil fuel burning vehicles, but I think a major factor in Pittsburgh being the highest on the list is our inefficient highway system. Pittsburgh does not have a beltway. Everyone driving from the eastern suburbs to our airport must drive through a tunnel on the parkway, through the east end of the city and then through downtown, across a bridge, and then through another tunnel to continue on the parkway to the airport. This is the way it is to get from one quadrant of the metro area to another - you must go through the city of Pittsburgh.

While having to drive through the city to get from suburbs out East to West, North to South, etc, is a pain and probably contributes a great deal to our poor air quality, I think the source is not necessarily automobiles, but the hundreds of soot emitting diesel trucks and buses that have to drive through the city each and every day. How many recall driving next to a truck like the one in the picture above that was was emitting black soot into our air? I see it just about everyday as I commute through the Liberty Tunnel, through downtown to get to my workplace in the northern suburbs. Thinking about it makes my blood boil because there is nothing I can do except watch the soot spread out through the air. I know the driver of the truck either does not care or has no idea what his truck his putting in our air. And why should it be his problem? This has been an issue for years now and I doubt little has been done beyond this EPA funded research study at Carnegie Mellon University.

So why am I so up at arms about this? We do not have children but my wife and I have both recently begun to experience breathing problems. My wife's is more severe as she seems to have some of the symptoms of asthma. We both love to go into the city to go out to eat or take walks in the parks by ourselves or with our dogs. Will it get to a point where we can no longer take walks in the city? Or not want to raise our children in a city that puts them at high risk for asthma or cardiovascular disease? Are people who walk or jog on the Eliza Furnace trail (the jail trail) putthing themselves at risk? And what the heck is with those Ozone Days anyways?

If our current mayor, or whoever is elected this spring, is serious about making Pittsburgh a leading edge city, a city that truly embraces the environment and cares about the health of its citizens, then they will do more than Green Building initiatives and running public works vehicles on vegetable oil.

Our leaders at the local and state level must impose clean burning diesel standards on all trucks and buses in the region. This would be a mandate that we usually see coming out of California, so why not....Pennsylvania ??


Anonymous said...

The human being should be breathing through the NOSE, where incoming air is cleaned, humidified, warmed up - hence the polutants are stoped in the nose & do not get further into the respiratory system.
Mouth breathing overrides this defence & so exposes internal respiratory organs to external polutants => chronice diseases.
Do a search on the net, learn about the subject, and if needed look for someone that will teach you nose-breathing.
Good luck!

real said...

Do a search on the net, learn about particulate matter. These particles in the air are so small that they do not get filtered by the nose or coughed out by the lungs. Decades ago, the pollution from all the coke plants in this region, the soot that made the air black, contained coarse particles that were easier to cough out.

Nice try though!

Harold D. Miller said...

If you want to understand why the rankings of particulate pollution in Pittsburgh are so high and where it comes from, read my post on this from last spring at http://pittsburghfuture.blogspot.com/2006/04/misleading-rankings-on-air-pollution.html

real said...


I read your post a while back and can see how the actual rankings for Pittsburgh may be overstated. However, several studies from numerous sources claim that the asthma rate for Children in Pittsburgh is several times higher than the national average.

Besides poor air quality how do you explain Pittsburgh's above average asthma rates?

real said...

Here is link to a recent story on Pittsburgh
poor asthma rankings

Harold D. Miller said...

Give me the references to the "several studies from numerous sources" that say the asthma rate for children in Pittsburgh is "several times higher than the national average," because I haven't seen them. The study that the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America put out ranks "Asthma Capitals" based on a variety of factors that have nothing to do with whether people have asthma, including public smoking laws. Pittsburgh is listed is having a better than average death rate for asthma, but a worse than average *estimated* prevalence of asthma.

Nobody really knows what causes asthma, but there are a variety of factors which trigger or exacerbate it. One is air pollution (and we have issues with ozone as well as particulate, both caused heavily by transport from other regions as well as local factors), but so is pollen, dust mites, mold, cigarette smoke, changes in weather, etc., all of which we have a lot of here. This is not to minimize the problem of air pollution, but it is not likely to be the singular cause of asthma problems here.

real said...

Plenty of research out there that mentions Pittsburgh children having higher than average rates of asthma. www.google.com is a good place to start.

This was not supposed to be a debate about asthma my intention was the highlight the air quality of Pittsburgh and its link to our health. My wife never had any symptoms of astma up until 2 years ago. We've tried air purifiers in our house and that has helped some but she still have some difficulty breathing at times. We live close to West Liberty Ave and not too far from Banksville Road - two roads heavily traveled by the soot spewing trucks mentioned in the original post.

Anonymous said...

RE: Nose breathing

It's not only about filtering:

"The high NO levels in the nasal and paranasal airways contribute to the first line defence against microorganisms"