In 1948, twenty people died when thick smog settled over the small town of Donora, just south of Pittsburgh. Pollution from a zinc plant and changing weather patterns were to blame. Is the city prepared if something like that happens again?
At an air quality disaster modeling workshop this spring in Pittsburgh, first responders and health professionals were given this scenario:
“On the morning of Monday, August 25, 2025, a temperature inversion sets in on the Pittsburgh region. Warm, summer air nearest the ground is trapped by a hotter layer of air that has settled in the atmosphere above.”
Participants were then told that the trapped air has mixed with pollution from cars and industrial emissions, making a toxic soup of ozone and particulate matter. People are having trouble breathing and an emergency is triggered.
The modeling exercise was led by Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh’s Chief Resilience Officer. His job is to assess the city’s ability to handle shocks and stresses it may face in the 21st century, like those that come with climate change. High temperatures caused by heat-trapping emissions and powerful storms are both consequences of global warming.
In this disaster scenario, temperatures are between 95 and 105 degrees for four days. The electric grid fizzles. And to top it all off, there’s a big thunderstorm.
“One of the things we were learning from a lot of our public safety officials is the challenges they have dealing with what they call multiattributional events, or when things are happening all at the same time,” says Ervin.
Emergency response would begin to see an uptick in calls from residents with asthma and cardiopulmonary issues.
LISTEN: “If Climate Change Brings an Environmental Health Crisis, How Will Pittsburgh Respond?”
That’s where the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health comes into the role-playing. They’ve been using a technology that uses census-based data to simulate how epidemics would impact a population. But Mark Roberts, Chair of Pitt’s Department of Health Policy and Management, says they’ve expanded it beyond infectious diseases, to model other scenarios like a severe heat wave and air pollution event.
“We can get population-level estimates of how many calls to emergency rooms there would be based on the age and gender and diseases that people in various communities have,” he says.
For the purposes of this exercise, a computer program from a company called Intermedix worked with the health data to figure out how many emergency responders would be available at the specific times that people are seeking help. The software allows cities to prepare for the worst by throwing virtual scenarios at it, looking for weaknesses in the system and then fixing them. All, of course, in an effort to save lives.
For Darryl Jones, Pittsburgh’s fire chief, the most important takeaway from the exercise isn’t the technology. It’s building relationships between public health officials and emergency responders.
“The day of the incident, when it’s very hectic and chaotic, is not the time for us to be passing out business cards and introducing ourselves.”
Jones says though a temperature inversion isn’t out of the realm of possibility, he’s more concerned about another potential disaster scenario: a failure of Pittsburgh’s drinking water system.
The air pollution disaster workshop was part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Cities initiative. Pittsburgh was selected for the program in 2014. The other 99 participating cities around the world will benefit from this air pollution “what-if” event through information sharing among the cities.
Otis Rolley, 100 Cities Regional Director for North America, says Pittsburgh is outshining some of the larger cities he works with when it comes to the connections being made by academics, government and business leaders. “How they collectively are building their muscles is a competitive advantage. And it’s impressive,” he says.
Later this week on our program, we’ll have a longer conversation with Otis Rolley about how cities are adapting to climate change for our series, Hazardous to Your Health.
Reporting by Kara Holsopple