The numbers are stark and disturbing. They hint at loss, suffering and death.
Pittsburghers have known, based on previous reports, of the poor air quality in communities near U.S. Steel's Clairton coke works. But the latest national air assessment by the federal Environmental Protection Agency has put a freshly grim stamp on the matter.
According to air pollution data from 2002, EPA has calculated that people living in Clairton have a 762 in 1 million chance of getting cancer and residents of Glassport have a risk of 700 in 1 million. That's 20 times greater than the national average, which is 36 in a million.
The figures put the two Allegheny County towns high on EPA's list for communities with the nation's greatest cancer risks due to bad air. Cerritos, Calif. (1,200 in 1 million), outside Los Angeles, and Madison County, Ill. (1,000 in 1 million), near St. Louis, had the worst odds.
These findings echo other studies that indicate the area around the coke works has some of the poorest air in the country. Among them is the American Lung Association's State of the Air report, released in April, which showed Liberty with the nation's worst small particulate pollution -- an accurate distinction, until the association tried to project it as representative of the eight-county metro region.
By contrast, the EPA's National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment is alarming without being alarmist. It says that 2.2 million Americans, including 73,046 from Pennsylvania, lived in places in 2002 where the cancer risk was at least 100 in 1 million, three times the national average. The risk rates were calculated after assessing 180 air toxics and diesel particulate matter from stationary sources like power plants and factories and from mobile sources like cars, trucks and buses. The EPA's next assessment will use data from 2005.
While we can't speak for Cerritos, Calif., and Madison County, Ill., the encouraging news for Clairton and Glassport is that air quality has improved since 2002. But improved does not mean good.
U.S. Steel's coke works is the chief factor in the valley's substandard air, and the company embarked on a $1 billion modernization that would have dramatically reduced emissions. The program was suspended this year, however, due to the flagging economy. With the reduced production, pollution is down as well, but that's not a permanent solution. The company needs to put the modernization back on track.
As to the rest of the polluters -- coal-fired plants, other industries and motorists -- only tougher laws and rules from the state and federal governments, under diligent oversight from Allegheny County government, can dilute the risk-filled air in that part of the Monongahela Valley.
The EPA's report is yet another call to action.