Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Leaving Pittsburgh because of industrial air pollution (publicsource.org)
120 points by tantalor 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

To those saying "nah, it's fine there" in Pittsburgh, I can absolutely say this is a problem, but this varies drastically area to area. I lived there for about 20 years, and industrial pollution is a well known problem there.

It isn't exactly advertised, but the city water around the cmu-google-downtown region has failed tests many times, and at least on two occasions the city provided water filters due to contaminants. This is mostly due to how old the city is, rusty and lead pipes in old homes are impossible for the city to track and fix. This is true everywhere in the rust belt.

Air quality in Pittsburgh gets really bad once you go out past googles neck of the woods, that used to be covered in steel mills, plastics manufacturing, coal and trash burning plants. I understand the desire to live near work, but please don't move near bakery square. They can try to cover it up, but I'm sure the ground is contaminated as well. The entire thing used to be a factory before they bulldozed it in the early 2000s. And nearly all the land near a river will have been used by industry at some point. There's a reason why you can pick 4 locals and at least one has asthma.

Edit: for fun, here's a reminder of what the city looked like during the steel days. You couldn't wear white clothing because of the soot in the air. http://cdn.citylab.com/media/img/citylab/legacy/2012/06/05/p...

Bakery Square was a Nabisco factory. Unless you are worried about what they are putting in your Teddy Grahams, I'm not exactly worried that there is a conspiracy to cover up some Superfund site.

There is a lot of feeling in the parent comment, but not a lot of fact. Just because you can smell the pollution in Pittsburgh doesn't mean that it's any worse than the cities with that have lower air quality ratings due to odorless contaminants.

Every city can do better. Just don't expect them to install giant fans on top of Mt Washington to blow away some odor.

"This is mostly due to how old the city is, rusty and lead pipes in old homes are impossible for the city to track and fix."

It shouldn't be that hard to track at all with a little brainpower. When did we stop using lead and iron piping? Add another 10 years forward and start from that date back, and find every home matching the age/time range.

Everything else should be copper and/or plastic.

Lead can also hang around in deposits in copper and brass piping or dissolve/precipitate with manganese from water treatment plants. Up until 1986 (epa ban) people still put together copper and brass pipe systems with lead solder. You would have to test or replace every section of piping installed prior to 1986. As another commenter pointed out, the chance of accurate records is basically nil. The best you could do is inspect every structure constructed and pipe laid until 1986, which would require a ton of taxpayer money. Good luck convincing people to vote for that.

Edit: Another consideration - I'm not sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a "lead scale" like with lime or calcium which could even hang around in "good" copper pipes. Someone more familiar with chemistry or water/wastewater engineering could probably give a more educated answer.

> When did we stop using lead and iron piping?

Who says we stopped? Water mains often have service life > 100 years. Old buildings have old plumbing.

Who has those records? Are they accurate? Are they digitized? Are they consolidated into one place? Are they accurate?

No, no, you don't get it. This problem must be so easy and people quite simply haven't fixed it yet. Armchair analysts on HN know better than the people / agencies working on the problem. /s

My guess is they do have (some) data, but it's split among departments, in different formats. Assuming detailed records were kept that far back.

"Armchair analysts on HN know better than the people"

You'd assume I'm an armchair analyst instead of someone that actually does civil planning work.

They have ALL of that data. It's in the damned city plats. Go pay $20 and get a copy of your neighborhood's electrical and piping. Hell you can actually look it up for free online using ARCGIS.

They actually have a somewhat decent map that shows you all of the lead pipes and their replacement strategy around the city.


My understanding of the issue, when I was in Pittsburgh ('09-'13 and '15-'19) was that it was a combination of Clairton Coke Works pollution and unfavorable winds/weather patterns that would cause the smell to stick around. I definitely know the smell he's talking about. But it wasn't every day, maybe not even most days (anecdata, I know), and not terribly strong where I was (Squirrel Hill).

Personal opinion: lots of cities have specific quality-of-life issues of varying degrees; in the Mountain View area now, I could equally complain about Superfund sites from all the early silicon industry dumping. Overall in Pittsburgh, the walkability, easy access to hikes through large parks in city limits, lack of stress about high rents, etc., probably outweighed an occasional whiff of sulfur wrt my quality of life. Everyone is of course welcome to make that tradeoff differently!

Is this smell or industrial pollution not measured in the Air Quality Index?

This is not at all scientific, but I just looked at AQI for Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, and NYC:

* PGH: 34

* Palo Alto: 32

* NY region: 50

List of City rankings from American Lung Association: https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/city-r...

I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

I used to live in Pittsburgh and would wake up with a metallic taste in my mouth if I left the windows open. Going outside almost always smelled like burnt tires or some small hint of coins, even when I’d walk around in parks early in the morning before there was any traffic.

I had friends from Beijing complain about the foulness of Pittsburgh’s air. Visiting Beijing, I realized they weren’t joking. It’s visibly smoggy over there, but in Pittsburgh, clear days will reek worse than even smoggy cities.

The most common sources of smelly and health-affecting industrial pollution, particularly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, are included. However, Hydrogen Sulfide is not, and it is a common one found specifically in both petroleum engineering. He mentioned that the smell was similar to the petroleum cracking plants in the north Salt Lake valley, so I'm assuming that is it.

Regardless, AQI measurements are relatively aggregate, and if the pollution is produced very locally, it might be off the charts in that location, but diffuse down to a moderate measurement on a broader scale.

The smell is mostly from a coke plant in Clairton, PA that has been violating emissions rules for decades.

I'm living in New South Wales, Australia right now, which is currently famous for being on fire. Depending on the winds, some days we have excellent air quality and some days it is terrible. Something similar could be happening here with Pittsburgh.

After a quick google, this article supports the idea that air quality in Pittsburgh is awful. https://www.ehn.org/pittsburghs-air-quality-continues-to-dec...

Count me as another person who lived in Pittsburgh and did not notice anything close to what he is describing.

That’s not to say he isn’t right, of course. But for me Pittsburgh was an awesome, safe, affordable, and surprisingly culturally rich city that I was sad to have to leave.

Same from me and I lived their for 15 years. Even when traveling to other parts of Pittsburgh I never noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Pittsburgh does not have the best air quality, but I was surprised to find it listed as better than SF in this article which is overall negative on Pittsburgh [0]. Neither is in a good place, being in the top 15 most worst cities in the country for air quality.

If you want some charts it looks it really does very by section of the city as well [1].

I know people in the area and they responded by getting a Purple Air quality monitor and indoor air purifiers. The simply staying inside when the it was particularly bad day. Which definitely echos China’s big cities, and not in a good way.

0 - https://www.post-gazette.com/local/2019/04/24/Pittsburgh-reg...

1 - https://www.wesa.fm/post/pittsburghs-air-quality-better-past...

Pittsburgh resident here. I’ve lived in four different neighborhoods over the last 10 years (and spent time at Google’s offices in Bakery Square) and haven’t experienced any of these issues. (Not to say the author didn’t experience this — it’s just that I’ve been around the same area and haven’t.)

To me, Pittsburgh’s air quality seems comparable to other cities.

In all the times I've been in Pittsburgh and even Chatham University in particular, I haven't smelled what he did. Not to say he didn't, and as he notes the smells come and go so maybe I was fortunate. I just don't want people walking away with the impression things are like the smog-filled skies of decades past. It's really a nice city for where it is.

This is anecdata. I live in Pittsburgh and have never had a smell issue. I've never had a coworker complain about this to me either. There's a good chance the author could have solved his smell issue by moving down the street to a different neighborhood.

Pollution isn’t always something you can see or smell. Need a better counterargument than “ I don’t smell anything”

It counters the author's argument that he smelled something.

Not at all. He talked to a County official that confirmed the Industrial Pollution, cited an app that has other anecdotal accounts by others in Pittsburgh. His article isn't simply a one line about smelling something.

So then take some sample where the other commenter is at and compare.

This isn't a court of law. We don't need to crucify people for providing their experiences...

You know that crucifixion is something worse than someone saying "i need a better counterargument" on a discussion forum, right?

True it is exactly the same number of data points as well.

Pull up a elevation/topo map of Pittsburgh and you'll see why some people will smell something while others don't. It's very hilly and it would be easy for certain particulates/gasses to settle in some places but not others.

My anecdote: lived in Central and South Oakland neighborhoods of Pittsburgh 04-08, no smell but I suffered chronic bronchitis in winter that was worse than anywhere else I have lived, with the exception of posh inner western London, which was distinctly worse. Moved to East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh 08-10, on the other side of Google, and bronchitis was alleviated, and still no smell either. I am not familiar with the smell the author speaks of.

I have lived in the bay for the last 8 years. When there are no fires burning, the bay air quality is amazing and I don’t take it for granted and factor it into my reasons for staying here.

I have seriously considered moving back to Pittsburgh because it’s really a great city. Along with the mediocre air quality, the relatively high number of overcast days in Pittsburgh effectively discourages me, I like sunshine a lot.

Without measurements, it is just one guys' tantrum. There are many air quality measurement products he can buy if he wants to be scientific about it: https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Industrial-Scientific-In...

Actually people who want to be 'scientific' about it won't rely on these devices because they aren't very accurate.

Actually many people who want to be 'scientific' about it won't use these devices because they are not very accurate.

1. Software developer moves to Pittsburgh to save money on cost of living.

2. Software developer realizes there is an air problem.

3. Software developer advises other software developers to avoid the city.

Why, in this process of events isn't he appealing to the local government more - as a member of a workforce that is able to afford moving pretty trivially and can actually reside in crazy locales like SF it's rather depressing to see lines like:

> I credit myself with discouraging at least a dozen contacts in the tech industry from considering Pittsburgh until the situation improves.

Without even a spare moment's thought to the residents in Pittsburgh that are stuck there.

"As a result, I am also leaving and transferring to a different office within Google. However, I am not going quietly. I am active on our internal lists, encouraging people to use the ‘SmellPGH’ app and to submit county and state environmental complaint forms, for all the lack of good it seems to do."

It seems like he's at least tried.

*barely tried

So, what exactly are you doing to help the people of Pittsburgh if you're complaining that OP didn't do enough despite TFA?

How is this not the emptiest and most self-righteous form of virtue-signaling we get on HN?

How could you write this comment instead of volunteering at your local soup kitchen and petitioning the government to end homelessness? You'll have to try harder to appease my arbitrary internet expectations of you, or I'll call you out.

>Without even a spare moment's thought to the residents in Pittsburgh that are stuck there.

I wouldn't expect anyone to subject their children and family and themselves to something they believe is unhealthy if they can afford not to. And I don't see what else this person could do other than support politicians who will empower the EPA.

Are you suggesting people who currently have lives built up in Pittsburgh also leave instead of improving the situation?

I'm not suggesting anyone do anything, but expecting someone to not move their family out of harm's way is unrealistic. This is not a situation that can be solved in the short term, nor with any decent chance of success. Therefore if you believe you are subjecting your family to a hazard by living there, the only option is to leave.

> expecting someone to not move their family out of harm’s way is unrealistic

> only option is to leave

Classic black and white thinking HN-style weakness.

I’m open to hearing what one should do if they believe the air around them is harmful to their family’s health.

Should? Previously you were expecting people to move.

It’s complicated and involves someone’s entire life circumstances. There’s no catch-all function which only takes the parameter `airQuality` that people adhere to like machines.

Families get entrenched. People have real estate. Culture melds with you. You get connected to the local politics. There are so many reasons that one would attempt to improve or accept their local situation instead of leaving.

Yes, my expectations are based on my experiences of people prioritizing their family's health above all else, assuming they have income security. If I was in a situation where my children are breathing in air I thought was harmful to them in the long term, and I had the ability to move somewhere where they weren't being harmed, I would prioritize that above all else.

I would be shocked if I met someone who would sacrifice their family's health if they had a decent option where they wouldn't have to. This probably doesn't apply to most people, as they might have to weigh trade offs such as moving away from family and whatnot, but the person who wrote the article is obviously earning far above most, and can afford to easily move.

The air pollution in Pittsburgh isn’t caused by things under the control of the local government or even the state government. It accumulates and blows in from west of there. Only the US federal government can fix it.

Where is it coming from, specifically?

In the NYC area we get a lot of pollution from coal burning power plans in the Midwest. Air currents take all that pollution and dump it here. Probably similar for Pittsburgh.

Mostly from Clairton, PA.

Is this a subtle dig at Ohio?

I used to live less than half a mile from Google, but I always thought the smell was due to the train that runs along the busway. Some mornings the smell there was extremely pungent, but it was definitely something that I smelled the entire time I lived there.

I've lived in Pittsburgh my whole life and I can't recommend it. It's just a really unhealthy place. I 100% believe him about our air quality. I visited Seattle recently and noticed on the second day that breathing felt so much easier. I don't have any data but I know how I feel. Some friends who moved here for grad school have said the same thing, and some even have been diagnosed with adult asthma after moving here.

Our water quality is awful too, we have boil advisories a few times a year after they find lead. They just approved fracking in the Mon Valley against the public's wishes, and closer to the river than environmental groups recommended, so it's just gonna get worse.

It's an incredibly car-centric city, so there's new pollution being spread everywhere every day. I've been trying to find a job elsewhere for 2 years, hopefully eventually I can leave. There are other up-and-coming cities more worth your time.

Does boiling the water help if it's contaminated with lead?

No, the GP is mistaken about the reason for the boil water advisories. it's true that Pittsburgh has a very aging water infrastructure, and there are somewhat regular water main breaks, which introduced the possibility of contamination for a period of time after the break. Those are what result in boil water advisories.

The lead issue was a one-time, grevious error - The city outsourced the management of the water plant to a commercial vendor, who changed the mix of lead prevention chemicals in order to save money. Needless to say, that worked out poorly. Vincent's taking control back of the PWSA, and introduced orthophosphate into the water supply to control the lead from old pipes, and it's pretty good again.

I don't know. I can say I get the same metallic taste/smell in water/outdoors air as other commenters have mentioned, only in Pittsburgh.

Industrial pollution is probably more common than most people realize. I've lived Denver, Pittsburgh and Tampa and you can always catch smells depending on what part of the city you're in. I just saw this article on Colorado Public Radio today. https://www.cpr.org/2020/01/06/why-denver-sometimes-smells-l...

I am curious if the solution is from new sources (fracking and cracking) or historical sources like the Clairton coke works. I've heard that there are several new ethane cracker plants that have come online in recent years to support the fracking industry.

From what I understand the long standing polluters like the clairton coke works are still going strong and there have been several new cracking plants built to support the fracking industry.

There's a large plant in Beaver County, northwest of Pittsburgh, but it's still being constructed.

Living in Pittsburgh from 1986 to 1991 it was common in Squirrel Hill, among the best neighborhoods, for the air to go bad, completely unbearable and disgusting in the middle of the night even in summer as coke plants did their work. And authorities lied about it every time. Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, but bad air quality is a major open issue.

Coming to London was a real eye opener. Biking to work in London I get a myriad of smells, all petroleum based I am guessing and each distinct... and I am entirely unsure what they are or where they come from.

This is on top of diesel pollution which is much more apparent then gasoline pollution in the states. If enough cars are idling you can taste it!

I used to live there, and visited over new year.

I'm sure there are statistics, but my impression is the huge increase in electric and hybrid buses, plus electric vehicles generally, has made a big improvement. The diesel black cabs still remain, and are probably the worst offender.

I would cycle on backstreets 95% of the time in London, to avoid the pollution.

My $.02 and anecdotal info: As a resident for ~12 years, my own experience is that in the East End (lived in that area for ~9 years) this specific smell is prominent at certain times. Not always, but there are nights/days when it is very strong, usually starting in the very early morning hours. There are certain weather patterns that seem to facilitate this. And yes, (as far as I know) it is most likely emissions from the Clairton plant. It is quite a bit different where I live now, which is south of Pittsburgh proper, and I am not noticing this specific smell. There are interesting weather patterns throughout this river valley area that seem to layer and maintain that polluted air over specific areas of the city.

How does this jibe with reports like "Pittsburgh Named One Of The Most Livable Cities In The World"[0] or many other liveability rankings?

[0]: https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2015/07/31/pittsburgh-named-...

A lot of those 'most livabe' or 'best city' / region articles are just a collection of data sets that often leave some things out.

I remember the early days of those articles they often came up with random bedroom communities / suburbs that just fit the stats, or excelled at a few stats and that tipped the balance.

Reminds me of when I was younger, and I crunched census data to locate the city with the highest percentage of single women.

Turned out to be a random suburb with a female prison.

I imagine that the "single women in <your town>" ads for that town are pretty accurate then ...

I reached the same conclusion but luckily before moving there. Pittsburgh just has bad air. It also has the least sunlight of any American city.

Where are you getting it having the least sunlight? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_sunshine_dur... lists Juneau as having less.

But yes, it's low!

Funny that he mentions Salt Lake / the Salt lake valley as the only other experience with significant levels of air pollution. I often wonder how "silicon slopes" companies are able to attract people here, they must never interview during the winter (particulate) or summer (ozone / smoke).

just move to mt. lebo like the rest of the up-and-ups!

Spoiler: Industrial air pollution that he did not expect.

Seems like Google can just install some big scrubbers.

He should be glad that Google probably won’t build an office near a pig waste lagoon.

Cannot help but notice the luxury the author has of repeatedly relocating without having to look for a new job. Good for him.

That explains the presence of all the low IQ dummies at CMU down the road. :P

All these claims about the cognitive problems resulting from pollution don’t adequately explain how so many good universities and schools world over are in polluted urban areas.

Our college grad "brain drain" rate is around 50%, the worst in the country according to this article: https://www.citylab.com/life/2016/03/which-metros-are-best-a...

It's not "the worst", according to your article it's in the top 10 worst but there are literally 9 other worse metros before it. Also this is from 2016 I'm curious to see how it's changed in the past 4 years since the growth of Uber, Argo, Google, etc...

Whoops, you're right, I misread the chart.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact