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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.

Stella in a part

Susan Scott Peterson’s photo of her daughter Stella in a Pittsburgh park.

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, a podcast by New Hampshire Public Radio.

Read More

Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces (ROCIS)

Articles about air pollution by The Allegheny Front

Articles about the Clairton Coke Works by The Allegheny Front

Resource list for groups working on air quality in Pittsburgh

ROCIS cohort

Susan’s ROCIS cohort, showing off their air quality monitoring equipment. Back: Preston Shimer, Dave Bernard, Rashmi Baliga, Germiane Patterson, Louise Cannon, Ann Carrick. Front: Leila Srinivasan, Emily Dale, Pam Burrett, Dianne Hall, Susan Scott Peterson, Laryn Finder, Sam Bertenthal. Not pictured: Jessica Kester. Photo provided by Susan Scott Peterson


Music in this episode included portions of “Not Drunk” (mix-full-band-no-vocal) and “Not Drunk” (stem-bass)  by The Joy Drops and “Fresh Lift”  by Shane Ivers, all licensed under CC-BY 4.0. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Additional sounds excerpted from Sounds of Change, monica137142, and Premnath Kudva, licensed under CC-BY 4.0, and from soundbyladyv, licensed under CC Sampling +.