Take a deeper look at industry’s impact on Pittsburgh soil


Giant coke works along the Monongahela. Mom-and-pop lead-smelting sites. For more than 200 years, Pittsburgh’s industry has left residue still detectable in our backyards, particularly in the low-lying, flat neighborhoods of Pittsburgh — where the Monongahela River flowed long ago.

What exactly remains in our soil from Pittsburgh’s heavy industry, how does it affect us, what should be done about it — and in how much of a hurry?

Those are the questions facing Pittsburgh residents and the four panelists at Pitt’s next Science Revealed event, “Reaping What We Spill, Leak and Spew,” set for 4 to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 6, (Register for this Dietrich School series at https://www.as.pitt.edu/sciencerevealed.)

Dan Bain, faculty member in Dietrich’s Department of Geology and Environmental Science, is one of the panelists looking at how to measure contaminants and their health risks and what policies and regulations could help. Last summer, Bain and one of the department’s master’s degree students, Alexandra Maxim, published their work on background soil content in Pittsburgh.

Previous studies of lead, for instance, had focused on the obvious sources: the lead in gasoline that has left its mark on properties near roads, and the lead oxide that once made paint opaque and contaminated older building interiors.

Instead, Bain and Maxim were looking at “what happens between your sidewalk and your roof,” Bain said. “Can I garden in my yard? It really depends on what was there before.”

They looked at metal concentrations in parts of the city that had not been previously studied for surface pollution, Bain said. Some of our “paleo-valleys” — created by the prehistoric Monongahela riverbed that flowed through Regent Square and Homewood, down Penn Avenue into Shadyside and East Liberty — were already known for trapping air pollution from coke and steel plants during atmospheric “inversions.” Bain and Maxim noticed high metal concentrations in the soil in those areas as well from, they believe, the city’s industrial legacy.

They found background lead also elevated near locations of suspected secondary lead smelters — essentially small lead-recycling businesses that turned old lead pipes into buck shot or fishing sinkers for residents. “It’s not like they had good industrial hygiene,” Bain said.

Bain and Maxim also found cadmium in the soil near Neville Island and Hazelwood coke and steel sites. Coking is heating coal to get rid of volatile materials so it can be used in the steelmaking process, but the temperature needed for coking also boils off cadmium. Cadmium is not as bad a pollutant as lead, but in higher concentrations it replaces calcium in your bones and makes bones brittle.

All of this work has allowed Bain to form relationships with local environmental organizations and create the Three Rivers Urban Soil Symposium, which aims to recommend appropriate policies for urban agriculture and green infrastructure.

“We use green infrastructure to take water out of the storm sewer,” said Bain, particularly run-off from large expanses of concrete and macadam, such as parking lots, roads and sidewalks. But hot days mean lots of microbial activity on these surfaces. The microbes pull oxygen out of metals left on the surfaces long ago, which can cause the metal molecules to adhere to the microbes and enter the water system as a byproduct of such green infrastructure.

“A lot of the environmental injustice we need to repair is going to be a people problem,” Bain said — meaning that communicating with and convincing the average citizen of the problem and its solutions may be tougher than the solutions themselves. He hopes this Science Revealed session “can shine a spotlight on some of these necessary repairs.”

The others presenters are:

• Aaron Barchowsky, faculty member in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in the School of Public Health, a metals toxicologist who has spent decades studying the mechanisms of disease caused by exposure to metals and environmental contaminants — including discoveries of how arsenic in drinking water promotes cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and how inhaled metals promote pulmonary disease.

• Tina Ndoh, faculty member in the same department, whose work focuses on environmental justice after decades of study concerning engineering and air quality.

• Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, faculty member in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Dietrich School’s Department of Economics, the author of books on how political, financial and legal institutions promote fossil fuel dependency while renewable energy gains a foothold, and on the impact of shale extraction on local communities.

• Cassie Quigley, the moderator, a faculty member in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leading at the School of Education who works with in-service teachers to help them include equitable approaches to science.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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