If you walk through cemeteries close to downtown Pittsburgh, two things stand out.

First, many headstones are still smeared with the soot that adhered to pretty much everything during the region’s industrial heyday. And, at the midpoint of the last century, many residents died in their 40s, 50s or early 60s.

The two are almost certainly connected.

Despite the fact that the mills have mostly shuttered, the rivers are cleaner and you no longer need to turn on your headlights at high noon, many people from outside the region still believe Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities are smothered in a thick blanket of smoke. Though the reality does not match the perception, a new report published in the journal Nature underscores the fact that this area and other parts of Pennsylvania still have work to do when it comes to improving air quality.

According to the report, which was compiled by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more than 3,000 Pennsylvanians died in 2018 due to air pollution. The lion’s share of those deaths resulted from pollution originating within Pennsylvania’s borders, not from pollution that drifted into the commonwealth from nearby states.

No other state had as many residents die before their time as a result of ozone and fine particulate matter floating in the air. The closest competitors are Texas, which experienced 2,714 premature deaths, and Virginia, with 1,198 premature deaths.

Our homegrown pollution is also taking a toll in other states, according to the study. It reports that 715 premature deaths in New Jersey were the result of Pennsylvania’s pollution, along with 657 in New York and 306 in Maryland.

This is not something that we just have to accept, like a rainy day or a cold snap. Most of the pollution is the result of traffic and power generation, the researchers found, and those are things we can control. Making a more concerted effort to switch to renewable energy sources would obviously make our air cleaner, and provide a boost to the economy. More comprehensive and better-financed public transit systems would also go some way toward getting vehicles off the road and reducing pollution.

But greater strides would be made if our power plants pumped less carbon into the atmosphere. In October, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order placing Pennsylvania in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a group of nine states in the Mid-Atlantic and New England that set caps on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Since the alliance started a little more than a decade ago, carbon emissions from power plants in the participating states have fallen by half. Republicans in the Legislature are trying to prevent Pennsylvania from joining the RGGI, arguing that it would hamper the commonwealth’s energy industry.

It’s political gamesmanship, to be sure. But it’s gamesmanship that could end up shaving years off people’s lives.


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