Environmental injustice in Pittsburgh: Poor, minority neighborhoods see higher rates of deaths from air pollution

PITTSBURGH—If air pollution levels in all of Allegheny County were lowered to match the levels seen in its least-polluted neighborhoods, about 100 fewer residents would die of coronary heart disease every year, according to a new study.

A majority of the lives that would be saved by such an initiative are in the region’s poor and minority communities—people who are also particularly susceptible to contracting and dying from COVID-19.

“Losing any lives to a preventable cause like pollution is tragic, and more deeply so when that human cost is borne unfairly along economic and racial lines,” Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, a Pittsburgh-based environmental and community advocacy nonprofit, told EHN.

The entire Pittsburgh region has problems with air pollution, but levels can vary widely between neighborhoods due to a variety of factors including industrial pollution sources, traffic patterns, and geography.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Allegheny County Health Department and published in the journal Environmental Health in March, found that the region’s most polluted census tracts are often in poor and minority neighborhoods, while the census tracts with the cleanest air tend to be in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. This results in a higher rate of air pollution-related deaths from coronary heart disease in poor and minority neighborhoods.

“Until you have actual numbers to hang your hat on, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of this problem,” James Fabisiak, a toxicologist at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and the study’s lead author, told EHN. “We wanted to be able to start having a conversation about how many deaths from air pollution in these neighborhoods are too many.”

In the study, Fabisiak and collaborators estimate that about 40 percent of air pollution-related coronary heart disease deaths in Allegheny County occur in environmental justice communities—even though such communities represent just 27 percent of the county’s total population.

Environmental justice communities are defined by the state of Pennsylvania as any census tract where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is a racial minority.

Black Lives Matter Pittsburgh

“Systemic racism is not limited to one system”

The study is being publicized at a time when the nation is grieving the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and demanding racial inequality be addressed. Many advocacy groups have pointed to the ties between systemic racism in policing and environmental pollution and climate change impacts.

“Black communities, which already face disinvestment of critical resources like public transportation and access to health care, are being overpoliced and underserved,” Heather McClain, an environmental justice organizer with the social justice nonprofit OnePA, told EHN.

McClain noted that East Pittsburgh, one of the region’s environmental justice communities, was home to Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2018.

“In that same community right now, an oil and gas company is teaming up with U.S. Steel to try and build a fracking well pad in a community that has already experienced generations of air pollution from the Edgar Thomson Mill,” McClain said.

She added that community members have concerns about how fracking could worsen air and water pollution, and about methane emissions from fracking being a major driver of climate change—which also disproportionately impacts environmental justice communities, since they don’t have adequate resources to address climate change-driven disasters like more frequent flooding.

“Systemic racism is not limited to one system,” Portlock said. “Unequal treatment in our housing, education, healthcare and economic systems creates a lack of resources and options for where and how people live. There are many causal problems, none of which are easy to fix…They require dedicated action to look for and remediate the unjust systems that support these inequities.”

Pittsburgh Air Pollution

Mapping inequities

For the new study, researchers looked at levels of two common air pollutants, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide, in each of the county’s census tracts using data collected by Carnegie Mellon University’s Breathe Mobile—a van equipped with sensitive air monitoring tools that researchers previously drove around the county to monitor air quality and create detailed exposure maps.

Black carbon is a sooty, black material emitted from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants, and industrial sources that causes respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and birth defects. Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant emitted from vehicle exhaust and the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas that causes respiratory and heart problems.

Using Breathe Mobile data, census data, and established methods for calculating disease risk, the researchers estimated how many coronary heart disease deaths in each census tract could be attributed to levels of black carbon and nitrogen dioxide. Then they used those numbers to determine how many deaths could be prevented if pollution levels in the dirtiest census tracts were lowered to match the levels seen in the cleanest ones.

“Studies like this often calculate how many lives we could save if we eliminated all of the world’s air pollution, but that’s not really practical,” Fabisiak said. “We know we’re not going to eliminate 100 percent of the air pollution in Allegheny County. But we’re estimating that we could save at least 100 lives if we could just reduce air pollution enough to make the whole county as clean as our least-polluted census tract.”

The researchers also organized the county into four groups, from least-polluted to most-polluted census tracts, and found that environmental justice communities were about 25 times as likely to fall into the group with the highest level of nitrogen dioxide pollution compared to the group with the lowest level.

When it came to black carbon exposure, environmental justice communities were about four times as likely to fall into the group with the highest level of pollution compared to the group with the lowest level.

Fabisiak noted that reducing pollution in the census tracts with the dirtiest air to the levels seen in the cleanest ones would likely save even more lives than they estimated in the study, since they only looked at two pollutants and one health effect. Air pollution exposure is associated with many other negative health outcomes, including cancer.

He also pointed out that they likely underestimated the true disparity between communities because they didn’t take into consideration other risk factors for coronary heart disease, like hypertension or diabetes, which also affect environmental justice communities at higher rates.

Pittsburgh Environmental Justice

Moving beyond crunching the numbers

The Allegheny County Health Department has worked to address environmental justice through the development of an Environmental Justice Index, first published in 2017 and updated in 2019. In addition to looking at poverty rates and racial makeup, the Health Department’s index uses additional metrics, like traffic and railroad density, high school grade attainment, home vacancy percentage, and impaired streams, to define the region’s environmental justice communities.

The index also organizes these environmental justice communities into groups according to their level of need for assistance in addressing environmental problems, from lowest-need to highest-need.

In the most recent update to the index, the Health Department organized the census tracts by neighborhood to more readily facilitate working with community organizers, leaders, and policymakers at the municipality level.

“We use these data to evaluate the impact of environmental justice on the health of our community and have evaluated the impact of environmental inequities on outcomes including asthma, childhood lead levels, and birth outcomes,” Dr. LuAnn Brink, chief epidemiologist at the Allegheny County Health Department and a co-author of the study, told EHN, adding that the Department is currently looking at environmental justice and COVID-19 incidence by community.

Heather McClain, the environmental justice organizer with OnePA, said she hopes the Health Department will go beyond just crunching the numbers.

“Some of the initiatives aimed at defending these environmental justice communities don’t seem to have any teeth,” McClain said.

“It’s not enough to just do the studies and give this issue lip service, or even just to work with local officials—government agencies need to be reaching out to organizers and activists on the ground, and really listening to and engaging with the people in these communities whose lives are being impacted by environmental injustice every day.”

Banner photo: Youth speaker at a Pittsburgh Climate Strike, 2019. (Credit: Mark Dixon)