Researchers in Pittsburgh received about $1.35 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week to study basement flooding in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
They will survey households in Homewood and the Hill District to examine the health effects of bacteria and mold in damp spaces and help residents develop solutions.
“We’re trying to shine a light on this issue to help people understand that this is not just their issue as a homeowner,” said Walter Lewis, one of the lead researchers on the study and President and CEO of Homewood Children’s Village. “This is really a neighborhood issue. This is a city issue, and it also is related to some of the challenges that we’re seeing with climate change and the changes in our environment.”
Heavy rainfall has become increasingly common in Pittsburgh, and more severe. Average rainfall in the city increased from about 30 inches per year in 1840 to around 40 inches per year today.
These changes have caused visible problems in Homewood, where Lewis lives.
“Even on my street, there are sections of grass that almost are always extremely wet,” he said.
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Basement flooding, sewer backups
Increased rainfall is also associated with basement flooding, as well as stormwater runoff and an added strain on aging wastewater infrastructure in cities across the country. In Pittsburgh, that has led to sewer backups, increasing residents’ risk of exposure to environmental contaminants.
Where moisture thrives, so too do bacteria, mold and other fungi. Those can trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions, as well as interfere with one’s behavioral and mental health.
“Psychological distress, anxiety — these are behavioral health outcomes that when you’re having flooding in your basement, or increased moisture, or poor housing conditions that might be related to weather, these are real health effects that come from external sources that we know exist,” said Tamara Dubowitz, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and principal investigator on the study.
Alongside the RAND Corporation and Homewood Children’s Village, the University of Pittsburgh’s water “collaboratory” and the Black Environmental Collective will document and measure the correlation between basement flooding and these health concerns.
The partnership builds upon health outcomes research of more than 1,000 households in the Hill District and Homewood, ongoing since 2011. More than 83% of residents in each neighborhood identify as Black or African American, and — as of 2018 — each area had a median household income of less than $25,000.
“When you talk about a community where some people may not have the disposable income to pay thousands of dollars to do a repair in their basement, or not even just repair, but to just mitigate the water in their basements,” Lewis said. “And so now you have this economic challenge and hardship on top of it.”
Radon can increase with wet weather
Researchers say they’re also concerned because average radon test concentrations in the neighborhoods are at or near the EPA’s action level. The colorless, odorless, radioactive gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking in the U.S. and can seep into homes through groundwater during wet weather.
Dubowitz said while health conditions and air pollution have been widely studied in Allegheny County, air quality with respect to extreme rainfall isn’t as closely looked at.
“We know if this wasn’t documented, we weren’t going to have policy solutions that we need,” she said.
The EPA grant funding the research is aimed at identifying research-based solutions to issues posed by climate change, but researchers with the study say what they land on will be determined by residents and participants in the study.
“This is not just some research study that is going to get published and sit in some journal and that’s it,” Lewis said. “It’s something that is going to be studied and understood and we’re going to be working very diligently to see how can we apply these solutions to help our residents in our community and beyond.”