I’d been living in Pittsburgh for just a few weeks when I smelled it for the first time. The air was a little thick, a little hazy—and it smelled like a ripe porta potty. Barefoot, I walked around the block, looking for the source: Was it an open dumpster or a burst sewer line? A reeking trash heap? I couldn’t find anything that explained the smell.
It didn’t take long to figure out it was hydrogen sulfide, a sulfur-smelling gas emitted by U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, about fifteen miles south of my house. The plant manufactures coke, a fuel used in steelmaking—and it’s notorious for violating local pollution regulations.
We’re exposed to plenty of invisible risks in our daily life: toxic compounds in the fabric of our couches, contaminants in our water, and pollutants in the air we breathe. A lot of the time, we don’t think too much about them.
But sometimes, the invisible becomes suddenly, acutely visible. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, I’d been lucky: I’d never had to live with industrial air pollution before. And so when I realized the region’s air was often thick with pollutants, I was filled with regret and fear—especially for my three-year-old daughter.
But what could I do about it?
This is a story about the air we breathe, the risks we live with, and what it means to become a citizen of a place.
It’s adapted from an episode produced for Outside/In in 202126, a podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio.