The Challenge

To hear Carnegie Mellon’s Illah Nourbakhsh tell it, things are downright petrifying. “Air pollution across the U.S. is killing more people than prostate cancer, AIDS and breast cancer put together,” he says.

Robotics professor and creator of the revolutionary Breathe Cam, a system of four cameras which documents local air levels 24/7, Nourbakhsh glances out the window of his Newell-Simon Hall office on what looks like a perfect summer day. “Ninety percent of the country has better air than we do,” he frowns. “Fine particulates–you can’t see them across the street, but you can see them accumulated on the horizon.” He flips around a laptop displaying a live image of the Ohio River, the air noticeably brown. “We are essentially drowning.”

illah nourbakhsh F2134 750

Illah Nourbakhsh of Carnegie Mellon. Photo by Brian Cohen.

That comes as news to a lot of folks. On beautiful days, when compared to the Darkness at Noon photos from pre-1945, when burning soft coal was de rigueur throughout the Ohio Valley–Pittsburgh is a veritable Garden of Eden. Except it’s not.

The Myths

Myth #1: The air is clean.

According to The Heinz Endowments’ Science and Environment Program Director Philip Johnson, Pittsburgh is one of the country’s most polluted areas, on a par with the notorious Los Angeles basin, Central California trough, Cleveland and others. In terms of the infamous–and deadly–PM2.5 (particulate matter), a full 90 percent of the country has better, safer air. “No matter how you add up the numbers,” he says, “how you do the metrics, bad air collects in places you want the best air–river valleys, which serve as troughs for barge traffic, mills, cars, diesel, railroads and coke emissions.”

Rachel Filippini of GASP. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Rachel Filippini of GASP. Photo by Brian Cohen.


Myth #2: Whatever might be here is blowing in from Ohio.

No, it’s not. Some 60 percent of the fine particulate matter here is created here.

“We continue to generate some of the worst air quality in the nation,” says GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution) Executive Director Rachel Filippini. Her group educates the public about air quality issues and advocates for change. “It makes people sick. Asthma. Heart attack. Stroke. Autism. It affects every part of a person’s body.”

Also quality of life–those days when the air is laden with bad odors, when we have to close the windows, keep the kids in the house. Swap the zoo trip for the museum.

Suffer headaches. Sick days. Missed work. Missed school.

Myth #3: One person can’t do anything, can s/he?

Sure, you can. These days, you can monitor your air–scientifically. You can lobby public officials at the city, county, state and federal levels. You can demand accountability. You can elect public officials who will work for clean air. You can join the award-winning GASP and keep up on the latest issues and how you can get involved. The more members they have, the more clout they have.

Think of the sea changes caused by grassroots groups like NOW or MADD.

“The health department and local leaders need to hear directly from the people who live, work, and go to school near pollution sources,” says Filippini. Want to know more about the sources of local pollution? Go here.

Myth #4: Clean air costs jobs.

No, it doesn’t. Or doesn’t have to.

It doesn’t mean shutting–or curtailing production–at such major facilities as the Cheswick power plant, Clairton Coke Works or Neville Island’s Shenango Coke Works. It simply means more adroit monitoring, tougher clean air law enforcement, the kind of fines-with-teeth that make it more costly for companies to violate existing laws rather than comply with clean air standards.

“The health department needs to ensure that repeat and egregious violators are dealt with swiftly and that the fines are large enough to be a real incentive to clean up their act,” says Filippini.

It’s not impossible. Just ask the rest of the country, where there’s plenty of industry–and far cleaner air.

The Tools

Backed by The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project, Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab, part of its world renowned Robotics Institute, developed and deployed Breathe Cam. Available to the public here, images of Downtown, the East End and the Mon Valley are updated around the clock.

The idea seems simple–four watermelon-sized camera systems documenting the air. Hardly. It took four programmers working full-time three years to develop the technology necessary to create the complex blend of visuals, monitoring, data gathering and information retrieval. Then telling the story so efficiently that virtually anyone can read it. “It’s a media tool,” Nourbakhsh nods, “changing a person from standing on a hill, watching, writing in a notebook, into someone who can create media and show it virally across the internet.”