Thursday, June 18, 2015

County Health Department debuting new 'Healthier Allegheny' plan at community meetings

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2015 at 12:03 PM

  • Image courtesy of the Allegheny County Health Department
The Allegheny County Health Department is taking its Plan for a Healthier Allegheny on a small, four-stop tour.

The plan, introduced in May, seeks to educate county residents on the most “critical” facets of health care in the region.

“The foundation of good public health is to understand where you are and identify where you want to go,” ACHD Director Dr. Karen Hacker says.

The primary areas of the plan are: access to health care; chronic-disease health-risk behaviors; environmental dangers; maternity and child care; mental health; and substance abuse. The areas were chosen after a "fairly rigorous process," Hacker says, that included: an online community-health survey, 14 community meetings, an examination of existing data and input from an advisory committee. More information on that process can be found here.

While the larger plan seeks to address these primary concerns, the open-house events will operate more like health-care fairs, Hacker says. The ACHD and its community partners will set up tables to showcase online resources and introduce attendees to the master plan.

"The whole point here is to get a community consensus going to really drive change," Hacker says. "Having a plan that we can all get behind and work together on is the first step."

The greater vision of the initiative is set to roll out over a five-year period. Hacker says ACHD introduced the plan to “lead health improvement” by “[giving] everyone common goals.” Additionally, she says, the health department is seeking accreditation, and the plan is a step in the process toward that status. 

"I think the main thing is [that] the accreditation provides a real road map for improvement as a health department, and [the plan] was a very helpful organization strategy for us here at ACHD," Hacker says.

The open houses begin next week. 

Meeting dates and locations:

6:30-8 p.m. Mon., June 22. Castle Shannon Library, 3677 Myrtle Ave., Castle Shannon. 412-563-4552

6:30-8 p.m. Tue., June 23. Allegheny Intermediate Unit, 475 E. Waterfront Drive, Homestead. 412-394-5700

6:30-8 p.m. Tue., July 7. Baierl Family YMCA, 2565 Nicholson Road, Sewickley. 724-934-9622

6:30-8 p.m. Mon., July 27. Thelma Lovette YMCA, 2114 Centre Ave., Hill District. 412-315-0990

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Allegheny County Health Department: First Round of Lawrenceville Steel Foundry Testing Finished

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2015 at 10:52 AM

  • Photo by Heather Mull
The debate over a federal air-emissions permit at a steel foundry in Lawrenceville lit up local media for a few weeks last month, shining a spotlight on development and changing economics in the neighborhood. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review even framed it as "eco-wackos and hipsters vs. jobs."

The historical McConway & Torley foundry, established in the late 1800s, is now owned by Dallas-based Trinity Industries, which touts its Lawrenceville facility as the leading producer of railroad couplers (the part that holds railcars together) in the nation. 

After writing a draft permit that would significantly reduce the production levels of the McConway & Torley foundry — and jobs, the company says — the Allegheny County Health Department has finished its first round of testing that will determine how much pollution M&T actually creates.  As of right now, the health department doesn't know and the operating permit has been overdue since the 1990s.

"The preliminary results indicate that the building is much more efficient than we originally assumed," says Jim Thompson, deputy director of the ACHD. The results report will be available to the public in two-to-three weeks, he said.

In plain English, that means the actual building walls are holding in more pollution — mainly dust particles — than the health department assumed when it recently wrote the permit.

Two ACHD engineers observed the test, during which McConway & Torley operated at maximum capacity for several hours, Thompson said over the phone. He told City Paper that the protocol used was approved by the health department. A testing contractor, hired by M&T, actually ran the test, which "is the normal case," Thompson said.

But the health department can't make its decision on these results alone, Thompson says. More tests are planned for later this summer. 

"There’s another whole set of tests," he says.  "We'll be testing the emissions control devices for a number of pollutants, not just particulate matter, [but for] carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and various other air toxins. We can't really draw any conclusions about the production rate until those tests are done."

When asked whether the heavy metals emissions that the health department tracks with a monitor along M&T's perimeter would be considered, Thompson said that all concentrations of those pollutants are at a "safe level." The health department told CP in May that it is now using a standard of measurement with a higher limit for heavy metal allowances because the Environmental Protection Agency told them to.

However, nearby Lawrenceville residents and the local air quality watchdog Group Against Smog and Pollution expressed concern about levels of the heavy metal manganese that the monitor registers.

"Given the proximity of the industry to the community ... and ACHD's established policy on sources of chemical-toxicity information, the more protective [EPA] value is the one that ought to be used," Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP, said in May.

The health department has been recording and publishing heavy metal levels at that monitor since April 2011. 

"Years of data from an upwind monitor indicating excessive levels of pollutants raises concerns of what is really coming off of the plant and into the neighborhood," said Mark Dowiak, who owns a property on the same street as the foundry two years ago.

The results report for the first health department test will be available to the public in two to three weeks. The next round of tests will begin in July.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Expert on Diet, Health and the Environment Speaks Tonight

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2015 at 11:21 AM

What you eat affects more than you: As the USDA acknowledged for the first time this year, in its latest Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, our food system also has a huge impact on the environment.

Paula Martin, who directs Carnegie Mellon University’s Health Promotions Program, speaks tonight at the Carnegie Library of Homewood about using your diet to promote both personal health and the planet’s well-being.

Many food experts say the two goals are closely aligned.

The talk, titled “Understanding USDA Dietary Guidelines,” starts at 6:30 p.m.

The event, sponsored by the East End Food Co-Op, is free. Reserve a spot by calling 412-242-3598.

The library is at 7101 Hamilton Ave.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

CMU and Breathe Project present interactive air quality maps for Allegheny County

Posted By on Fri, May 15, 2015 at 5:54 PM

  • Photo courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab

You can now type your home address into an interactive map and learn about air quality in your neighborhood, all thanks to new maps published on the Heinz Endowments' Breathe Project website.

Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies produced the maps, which are a culmination of four years worth of real-time air quality data. Researchers drove a mobile lab to approximately 70 distinct locations during different times of the day and year, and they eventually gathered enough data to create estimates of annual averages of seven types of air pollutants. 

"What we really want to be able to do is say where it's [the pollution] coming from," says Albert Presto, of CMU's Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, who headed the project. "Our other goal was looking for hot spots."

Presto and his colleagues found hot spots around Downtown, and the three centers of industry in Allegheny County - Cheswick, the Mon Valley, and Neville Island. Another hot spot was Carnegie.

"That's one we didn't necessarily expect because when you think about the big industrial sources, none of them are there," Presto says. "It turns out, there's sort of a collection of smaller sources there, and there is a valley. Those things conspire to lead to higher concentrations [of pollutants]. We do predict elevated concentrations in that part of the valley."

The researchers collected data on seven pollutants -  nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, hydrocarbons, fine particulate matter, including black carbon particles, and carbon dioxide, some of which are considered "criteria pollutants" by the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning that the EPA sets standards for them under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA  warns that pollutants like ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide  can irritate the lungs, induce asthma symptoms and/or cause premature death.

The current interactive maps on the Breathe Project's website only allow people to find averages for black carbon and nitrogen dioxides.

"The plan is to add more pollutants as the maps become available," Presto says. "But this at least gives us a start and people can start looking at it."

The maps garnered some attention over the winter when Presto introduced them to the public, but now people can actually interact with them and take a closer look at their neighborhoods.

Presto says mapping the pollutants is only step one.

"One of the next steps is to help translate that to risk. You can look at the map we have now and see higher concentrations in some places than others, but then there's the question, 'how much does that impact your health?'" Presto says. "The other goal is to think about sources. What we want to do is build maps that are source-based. Ultimately when you think about policy, if you want to reduce concentrations of particular pollutants, what you need to do is regulate sources."

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eagle species unveiled at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2015 at 5:58 PM

A pair of Bateleur eagles was released into a new exhibit at the National Aviary today to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Endangered Species Day tomorrow.

  • Image courtesy of the National Aviary
  • A Bateleur eagle
The release of the one male and one female Bateleur eagle followed a medical examination by Dr. Pilar Fish, the Aviary's director of veterinary medicine.

Bateleur eagles are not commonly seen in zoos says Aviary spokesperson Robin Weber. “They’re not readily available, so we feel really lucky to have these two,” Weber says. This pair of eagles came to the Aviary from the San Diego Zoo.

Native to Africa, Bateleur eagles are found in warm climates and feed on a variety of prey from termites to antelopes. They have a bright red beak and feet, black head and body feathers and wings that can be grey, maroon, brown and white. Although they are not technically endangered, they were placed on the near-threatened list in 2009.

In addition to the unveiling of the Bateleur eagles, the Aviary plans other projects to commemorate Endangered Species Day. One of the most popular exhibits at the Aviary, the African penguins, are a critically endangered species with “less than 20,000 nesting pairs remaining in the wild,” Weber says. Although details were unavailable at press time, a large public-engagement campaign is expected to be unveiled tomorrow.

“Here at the National Aviary we are part of a breeding program to help protect the captive populations of these birds and in turn protect their wild counterparts through educational programming and work with other zoos. Tomorrow we’re going to be doing something dramatic for our visitors to help illustrate what that decline in the African Penguin population looks like and what extinction looks like,” Weber said in a statement.

As part of a national effort with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Aviary will offer a variety of activities throughout the weekend to demonstrate how the public can get involved in conservation.

The Aviary is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. It is located at 700 Arch St., on the North Side.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

ALCOSAN Will Text or Email You if Sewage Overflows into the River

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 2:40 PM

Combined sewer overflow during wet weather event in the winter of 2014 - PHOTO BY ASHLEY MURRAY
  • Photo by Ashley Murray
  • Combined sewer overflow during wet weather event in the winter of 2014
If you're about to go kayaking or fishing but aren't sure if the river's clean, you can receive safety alerts on your phone via text or email.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) is in its second year of reaching residents on their mobile devices and is working to spread the word about the alert system for the upcoming water-recreation season. Traditionally (and still today) residents could find out via color-coded flags along the river or on ALCOSAN's website.

Residents can subscribe online and receive mobile messages notifying them if a wet weather event has stressed the county's sewer system to the point where not just stormwater, but sewage as well, is overflowing into the rivers. Much of the county has combined sewer systems, meaning that stormwater and sewage flow in the same pipes. Simply, when the pipes get too full, they overflow into outlets along our waterways.

“During heavy rain – and even snowmelt, which we all hope is done, for now – stormwater pours into the regional sewers, overwhelming the system,” said Jeanne K. Clark, ALCOSAN’s public information officer, in a press release. “When that happens, the diluted sewage and stormwater overflow into our rivers and streams. Our alerts are designed to help keep the public safe by making sure everyone knows when this occurs.”

Clark says there were 50 overflows last year.

ALCOSAN is under a federal consent decree to fix the issue, which violates the Clean Water Act. The fix is going to cost billions, and in March, Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald asked the EPA for more time to incorporate "green" infrastructure — meaning infrastructure that would soak water back into the groundwater system instead of transporting it through bigger pipes. 

Clark says ALCOSAN is still negotiating with the EPA on "a whole lot of things," including green infrastructure, and hopes to finish up and move to a public comment period by the end of this year.

ALCOSAN will be posting alerts about sewer overflow risks from now until Oct. 31.

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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Update on Energy-Conserving Pittsburgh 2030 District

Posted By on Thu, Apr 30, 2015 at 3:04 PM

Participants in a challenge to reduce energy and water use are on track to meet their ambitious goals, says the Green Building Alliance. Perhaps more importantly, voluntary participation in the scheme by occupants of Pittsburgh’s two busiest business districts is expanding.

Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at yesterday's 2030 District event - PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald at yesterday's 2030 District event
That was the message at yesterday’s Pittsburgh 2030 District Progress Report announcement. Pittsburgh is one of 10 North American cities with such a district. Participating property owners — including some of the city’s largest — have pledged to cut usage of both energy and water by 50 percent by the year 2030.

The GBA launched its district in 2012, with initial participation from property owners Downtown (including North Side stadium-and-parking district). Late last year, the district expanded to include Oakland.

On the path to 2030, the target for the end of 2015 is to reduce both energy and water use by 10 percent from baseline numbers. The report covered through 2014, by which time participants had cut total energy use by 6.3 percent, 2030 District Director Anna Siefken told a crowd of 200 yesterday at Downtown’s PPG Place Wintergarden. The water-use target, by contrast, met its 10 percent reduction goal a year early.

The bigger news, though, might have been how many more property-owners have joined the challenge: There are now 85, more than double the number in 2013, and the count of affected properties has quadrupled, to 436, representing about 65 million square feet of real estate.

The District’s “Property Partners” now include property-owners ranging from the governments of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh to corporations (Alcoa, Highmark, BNY Mellon, PNC, UPMC and more), real-estate companies, universities, churches, small businesses, and institutions like the Carnegie Museums.

The District convenes meetings of participants and provides tools to help them figure out how to use less water and energy. Attendees at yesterday’s announcement included both County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who took the stage together to discuss how participating city- and county-owned buildings have fared. “This is something that we’re both very, very passionate about,” said Fitzgerald.

The rise gives Pittsburgh both the highest number of commited buildings and the most square footage of any of the 10 North American cities with 2030 Districts, Siefken said. And that affords the District more opportunities to save resources and improve indoor conditions for the people who live in, work in or otherwise utilize those buildings.

The GBA calculated the total energy saved by participants at 503 million kBTUs, or enough to power 5,562 homes. About 53 million gallons of water were conserved, or enough for 262 homes (or 1.3 million loads of laundry).

Certain individual buildings did much better than average: The massive, century-old City-County Building, for instance, cut its energy use by 47 percent against the baseline. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center, touted as a green building from its inception, cut energy use by 27 percent. Other structures didn't so do well: The county’s STD Clinic, in Oakland, actually used 46 percent more energy than when it joined the District. Though Fitzgerald acknowledge such “backsliding,” nobody at yesterday’s event explained why it happened.

Looking ahead, while it took participating property-owners two-and-a-half years to cut energy use 6.3 percent, Siefken says that the goal of 10 percent by this year’s end is in reach. “We’re feeling confident we’re going to make it,” she told City Paper.

One reason for that confidence is all the new participants. In fact, many Downtown participants have actually already met their energy-reduction goals for 2020. But while Siefken noted that Oakland’s preponderance of university and hospital buildings presents a set of challenges distinct from Downtown (half of which is office space), she said the newcomers have plenty of low-hanging fruit to pick.

Meanwhile, Siefken said, GBA will continue trying to recruit participants in the districts, where participation currently includes 68 percent of the total square footage in Downtown and Oakland.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cardiologist to Present on Connections between Air Pollution and Heart Health

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 3:35 PM

Cardiologist Wayne Cascio - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE EPA
  • Photo courtesy of the EPA
  • Cardiologist Wayne Cascio
Pittsburgh is ranked one of the worst cities for pollution by fine particles in the air. Tomorrow night, one of the largest health systems in the region will join local air-quality watchdogs to discuss the connection between air quality and heart health.

"Our region continues to have some of the worst air pollution in the nation, especially from fine particulate matter," says Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. Fine particles, those up to 30 times smaller around than a human hair, penetrate deeply into the lungs. "We know fine particles are associated with many health problems, and are often associated with asthma and respiratory issues, but heart health is also a concern," she says. 

The event is free and open to the public but is also targeted at medical professionals, who by attending can earn continuing medical-education credits through Allegheny Health Network, one of the sponsors of the event.

"They’re [medical professionals] often seen as a credible source of information, so having those professionals speak at public events and to decision-makers carries a lot of weight in pushing the message that clean air is critical," Filippini says.

Speakers will include Wayne Cascio, physician and director of the U.S. EPA's Environmental Public Health Division, and James Fabisiak, of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, who is one of the authors of the Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis.

"It’s possible that these small particles actually leave the lungs and travel in the bloodstream, but that’s probably the least likely scenario," says Cascio. "It's more likely that particles settle in the lungs where they initiate or cause inflammation and activate white blood cells, [which] release chemicals that travel and cause effects elsewhere in the body. The effects they provoke maybe actually be in the blood cells, liver [or] abdominal fat."

Cascio says those connections will be the main focus of the talk tomorrow night. 

"The other possibility that is kind of intriguing is that the particles irritate receptors in the lungs, and the receptors then signal back to the brain. The brain then sends electrical signals back to the body, which influences blood and heart function," Cascio says. "Those effects are quite rapid, measured probably within minutes of being exposed to air pollution, whereas the others [scenarios] take longer."

He says his research at the EPA includes looking at population-level data and associations with air pollutants as well as animal and cellular studies to investigate the potential biological mechanisms to explain those associations. He says the EPA also does limited studies with volunteers who periodically have blood work and other biological evaluations to determine the effects of air-pollutant exposure in their daily activities.

"We thought it would be important to bring someone with expertise from the regulatory side as well as being a physician himself," Filippini says.

5-8 p.m. Allegheny General Hospital, Magovern Conference Center, 320 E. North Ave., North Side. More info at http://gasp-pgh.org/heart-health/ 

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Friday, April 24, 2015

FutureFest 2015, Half-Price Phipps Admission Tomorrow

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2015 at 9:06 AM

This free new day-long family-friendly festival on the Phipps Conservatory front lawn is dedicated to envisioning a fun and sustainable future.

And the displays and activities – electric-bike test rides, anyone? – are complemented by half-price admission to Phipps, where current attractions include the Butterfly Forest and Tropical Forest Congo.

The festival itself includes live music by the likes of Black Little Birds, Gene Stovall, Devin Moses & The Saved, Proper People and Misaligned Mind. Plus: an aquaponics demo; demos by Food Revolution Pittsburgh cooking club and Phipps Café; and tours of Phipps’ new modular classroom.

Along with the e-bike rides and a scavenger hunt, try your hand at making a seed bomb or printing with reclaimed materials. There are also vendors of upcycled or sustainability-minded products.

Also look out for food trucks, from Las Chicas and Mac & Gold.

FutureFest is a project of Communitopia, a group trying to reclaim environmentalism from images of gloom and disaster (though it acknowledges that environmental disasters are quite real). Here’s a recent CP profile of Communitopia president Joylette Portlock, known for her humorous video series "Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something!"

The festival runs 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Phipps’ front lawn, rain or shine. (Many activities are tented.)

Organizers encourage attendees to bike or take transit to Phipps, located at 1 Schenley Plaza, in Oakland.

More info is here.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Pittsburgh's p4 Summit Touts Sustainability, Leaves Issues Unexplored

Posted By on Fri, Apr 17, 2015 at 5:13 PM

Yesterday’s kickoff of the big p4 Pittsburgh summit got a lot of mileage out of this familiar Einstein quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

Andre Heinz speaks at the p4 Pittsburgh summit - PHOTO BY BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • Photo by Bill O'Driscoll
  • Andre Heinz speaks at the p4 Pittsburgh summit
This international symposium organized by the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments was meant to herald “a major effort to forge a new model of urban growth and development that is innovative, inclusive and sustainable,” according to press materials. It drew about 200 civic leaders, designers and architects, construction types and more to the Energy Innovation Center to hear speakers from around the country and the world.

The p’s in the title referred to “planet, people, place and performance.” The Einstein quote showed up on the summit website and in at least a couple of yesterday’s talks. (The symposium continued today.) But just how different was the thinking there?

A bit — but only to a point.

I saw three of yesterday’s four sessions, including the first 20 of the day’s 28 speakers. The tone was upbeat, including boosterish welcomes from the Endowments’ Andre Heinz — a clean-tech investor as well as a philanthropist — and Mayor Bill Peduto. “Welcome to the next chapter of Pittsburgh,” said Peduto. “This is a stage for Pittsburgh to get back on the global scene.”

Speakers explored how cities — now home to most of the world’s population globally, and the source of almost all its greenhouse-gas production — can strive to become more livable and less energy-intensive. That’s a transition to which Pittsburgh is “incredibly suited,” said Hal Harvey, of San Francisco-based consultancy Energy Innovation. In the context of redesigning cities, his argument included the interesting thought that “society demands access, not mobility” — meaning, basically, that you can avoid road infrastructure and cars if you build stuff close enough together.

Christer Larsson, planning director for Malmo, Sweden, discussed that city’s newly built climate-neutral district, which claims to have no net effect on the greenhouse-gas emissions that drive climate change. The whole city plans to go climate-neutral by 2030, Larsson said. (Sweden was heavily repped at the summit thanks to Andre Heinz’ ties there.)

Continue reading »

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