Mapping Mortality: Air Pollution's Deadly Impact

Excellent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series looks at dirty air in western PA

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is a little more than halfway through an amazing week-long series called "Mapping Mortality" that focuses on air pollution in western Pennsylvania. Reporters Don Hopey and David Templeton spent a year interviewing more than 100 people, including Lee Lasich, who uses all of her fingers to enumerate the deaths of friends and neighbors from brain and pancreatic cancers in her Clairton, PA neighborhood.

The reporting is stellar, the photos are jarring, and the takeaway, unlike western PA’s air, is crystal clear: air pollution is killing people. Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of the state’s sundry sources of pollution—including 40 coal-fired power plants—often exhibit rates of heart and respiratory disease, lung cancers, and premature death that are significantly higher than national averages.

Hopey and Templeton concluded that 1,435 people in the 14-county region they studied die every year because of diseases linked to pollution exposure. Pennsylvania residents such as Ralph Hysong grasp the connections: "In Shippingport people don’t die of old age," he said. "They die of cancer or heart attacks or lung disease."

The Post-Gazette analysis found that heart disease- and respiratory-related deaths in Beaver County, where Shippingport is located, are 19 and 17 percent above national averages, respectively. Additionally, in a report titled "The Toll from Coal," the advocacy group Clean Air Task Force projected that the Bruce Mansfield coal plant in Shippingport causes 69 deaths every year.

This problem isn’t an unsolvable one. In its forty year history, the Clean Air Act has successfully reduced air pollution and saved tens of thousands of lives every year. And as Lisa Jackson remarked recently: "The total benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to more than 40 times the costs of regulation. For every one dollar we have spent, we get more than $40 of benefits in return." Reducing air pollution saves lives and money.

But despite the progress made, between 20,000 and 60,000 people are killed by air pollution in the U.S. every year, according to "Mapping Mortality." These avoidable deaths indicate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency still has a lot of work to do to improve air quality. As the agency considers standards to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, and other highly polluting facilities, Earthjustice will continue our long-standing efforts to protect Americans’ right to breathe.

Here’s one of the Post-Gazette’s videos:

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.