When the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of American released its 2022 Asthma Capitals report in September, three cities from Pennsylvania were on the Top 10 list: Allentown, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. In fact, Pennsylvania was the only state with multiple cities on the list.
Philadelphia, ranked ninth on that particular list, has for a long time found its way on asthma rankings. In fact, Philadelphia is known as an asthma capital of the U.S., ranked number 7 out of 100 of the most challenging places to live in the country if you have this chronic respiratory illness. According to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report, Philadelphia received an F for our ozone score. Community members are demanding that we push back against these statistics by creating even stronger regulations within our city.
This August, the city’s health commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole joined ecoWURD host Charles Ellison to discuss a public hearing on air regulations in Philadelphia.
How are air toxins measured?
The American Lung Association uses a grading system that ranks air quality from 1.0 to 2.5 and attributes those rankings to different colors. For example, an orange day is given a 1.0 which means that the air was unhealthy for sensitive groups; a red day is a 1.5.
Using a mathematical equation, they then determine a weighted average. Philadelphia’s weighted average was 6.8 as a result of 19 orange days and 1 red day. To receive an F, you have to have at least a 3.3 – meaning that Philadelphia scores 3.5 higher than what was needed to have what is considered an unhealthy ozone level. While this might not seem like a high number, Philadelphia is ranked 29 for high ozone days out of 226 metropolitan areas.
Dr. Bettigole detailed that Air Management Regulation VI was introduced by the Philadelphia Air Pollution Control Board (APCB) to increase the number of air toxins regulated due to their potential to cause fatal diseases, including cancer and heart problems. The APCB serves as an advisory committee on air quality issues for the Department of Public Health. While the list of air toxins subject to regulation was updated from 99 to 217 to match the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards, community members affected by most air toxins still believe that there should be stricter regulations. “The list was quite old and it needed to be updated to match current science and EPA guidelines, but as we were going through that process we had a number of public meetings and we heard from community members who said this isn’t strong enough,” said Dr. Bettigole.
Who does this affect?
We tend to see higher levels of air toxins in areas with a high population of people of color alongside areas where there is a lot of industrial activity. For example, Center City has a high amount of air pollution as a result of traffic. But Dr. Bettigole highlighted that we have to take into account how air pollution and its effects are actually eased by greater wealth and the presence of other environmental factors.
This is why Dr. Bettigole has urged us to look at the social determinants that layer on top of environmental ones that put people at risk for serious diseases. An example of this is smoking – we should begin to look at it as something that is determined based on the environment rather than solely by individual choice. Because when predominantly Black neighborhoods are plastered with tobacco ads and other targeted marketing, we see how advertising, area, and industry work together to put specific groups of people – usually Black folks – at risk for disease.
What Can We Do About This?
Here are a few things that we can do to begin tackling this issue:
- Putting Pressure on City Hall: First, make sure to both attend public hearings on the issue of Air Management Regulation VI and to organize residents to constantly put pressure on City Council members to make this a priority.
- Planting Trees: Adding more trees in neighborhoods can be a great and rather inexpensive way to alleviate the effects of air toxins as well as to make sure to recycle and drive less. The more trees planted means the cleaner the air will be.
- Staying Informed: There are also ways to stay more informed about air toxins such as installing Purple Air air quality monitors for free as detailed in another ecoWURD Magazine episode with Temple University’s Christina Rosan and Clean Air Council’s Russell Zerbo.
As for the social and environmental determinants that exacerbate the effects air toxins can have, we have to begin to take a much more systemic approach. Community members pushing for stricter regulations is a great place to start. Not only can we voice our concern for air pollutants, but we can also challenge how and where the city government locates industry, continues to displace Black and brown residents, and allows for targeted and racialized marketing to the detriment of our collective health.