Executive Summary

The environment is a major determinant of health. Locally, there are clear indications that the Pittsburgh region, once famous for having “cleaned up its act” as one of the most polluted places in the country, has been backsliding over the last decade or two in terms of certain aspects of environmental health, including, for example, air quality and urban sprawl. Despite these indications, certain key questions remain difficult to answer. For example, what is the current local burden of disease related to various environmental factors? How does this burden of disease in the Pittsburgh region compare to that seen in other parts of the country? How is it changing over time? Do certain communities in our region bear more of this burden than others? How can policy-makers, organizations and communities prioritize local environmental health problems so as to act most effectively to solve them?

Before we can begin to try to answer these questions, or even to know whether they are in fact answerable, it is first advisable to examine the types and quality of existing environmental health data. If available, such data would certainly be useful, for example, in helping make decisions related to personal actions, planning research agendas, program design, policy-making, and funding strategies. This report lays the groundwork for an understanding of the data and data gaps related to local environmental health, so as to allow such decision-making to be better informed by the available data, as well as to prioritize areas where efforts to gather better data are most needed. Our goal with this report in its present form is to create the foundation for a consolidated information inventory and data needs assessment that will serve the following purposes for environmental health researchers, citizens, funders and policy makers in the Pittsburgh region:

·         Provide an overview of several areas of environmental health information in one place, along with an understanding of their pertinence and interconnectedness

·         Illustrate the large volume of information that is already available, and where much of it can be obtained, to lessen information seeking time and duplication of effort

·         Describe some of the major strengths and weaknesses of existing information

·         Outline some of the major gaps in information, so that we collectively know where the greatest efforts will be needed

·         Highlight related data compilation, linkage and analysis endeavors, so that organizations may share resources and avoid duplication of efforts

·         Provide an understanding of some of the political/systemic barriers to furthering the environmental health data base, so that future endeavors take such barriers into consideration

·         Illustrate the “real life” connection to environmental health issues via case studies of successful and unsuccessful attempts to obtain and utilize environmental health data for specific purposes

Existing Endeavors

Several efforts are underway to strengthen local environmental health information. These include the following:

·         Data inventory and quality assessments:  For example, the statewide Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy (PCIEP), which includes several Pittsburgh region universities, is currently establishing a plan to assess and improve the statewide environmental health knowledge base.

·         Indicators development:  At least three groups--the Allegheny County Health Department, Sustainable Pittsburgh, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Indicators Consortium--are looking at county or regional indicators that focus specifically on environmental health, or at broader sets of indicators including environmental health as one topic area.  Over several years, these groups have already gathered a great deal of public and expert input that can provide some guidance in determining which data gaps to focus upon.  A great deal of linkage still remains to be done in this area; and while these more general indicators are excellent summary tools for tracking general progress and motivating legislators, more specific data may be required to answer important environmental health questions.

·         Technological tools:  Given Pittsburgh’s vast amount of technological expertise and educational resources, it’s not surprising that several endeavors are already creating tools to synthesize, warehouse, analyze and present information to various potential audiences.  This includes endeavors coordinated by university groups (SOVAT and Info-Pitt), a private-sector company (Community Information Commons), a government agency (HS.net) and small non-profits (the Community Information System).  Much of the technology is already exists, some of which is among the most cutting-edge in the world—however, a multitude of data sharing concerns must be addressed before these tools can truly be put to the test. 

·         Environmental health tracking and network development:  The Pennsylvania Department of Health, with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, is exploring statewide issues related to data availability—some of this is being linked with PCIEP, described above.


While there are already some common collaborating agencies across the above projects, great opportunity exists for the interdisciplinary linkages necessary for improving the state of regional environmental health data.

Environmental Health Data Areas

1. Consumer Demands and Polluting Activities

In a full discussion of environmental health, we cannot afford to ignore the driving forces behind pollution-related health risks, namely (1) consumer demand for the goods or services that a polluting industrial activity produces or allows, along with (2), polluting activities by individual persons that lead to directly to environmental pollution. Ultimately, it is we, through our own individual and collective demands and actions, who are the causes of the creation and release of toxins into the environment.  The physical, psychic, and economic complexities of modern life and its products make it increasingly difficult to fully understand the consequences of our daily actions. And yet, if we ignore the connections between our own lives and deeds and the rest of the world, we are likely to act in ways that are wasteful, destructive, and dangerous. The science of environmental health not only helps us to understand how our environments influence our health, but also how our actions influence the world around us. In regard to the latter, environmental health can teach us the implications of how we spend our time, get around, build places, and make things. It can demonstrate the consequences of what we buy, breathe, eat, drink, wear, use, and throw away. An environmental health approach can lead us to examine our everyday lives anew, and point us towards ways of living that maximize good, both for ourselves and the for rest of the planet.

To reduce environmental impact through our power as voters and consumers we must have sufficient information on which to base our decisions, and we must also have feasible alternatives. It should not be necessary, for example, to buy one’s own windmill and “go off the grid” in order to use renewable energy, or to have a Ph.D. in order to eat the right thing for lunch. There is a need for simple, direct communication of information about the ways that our actions and purchases affect our health and environment. This information, of course, depends on adequate data. We describe examples of data tools related to consumer demand and polluting activities in two categories: (1) tools for person-based analysis (ecological footprints), and (2), tools for product-based analysis (household products database, life-cycle analysis, and product labeling).

2. Source/Release

This includes data on pollution at the release point of large stationary sources (e.g., coal-fired power plants), smaller and more diffuse “area sources” (e.g., dry cleaners), and mobile sources (e.g., motorized vehicles).  The most comprehensive set of information on data for pollution released from larger stationary sources remains the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), compiled at the federal level.  It includes individual sites’ reported emissions into various environmental media including land, water and air.  While tools have very recently been developed to assist with querying, presentation and linkage of the TRI’s impressive volume of information (e.g., the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s TOXMAP and Environmental Defense’s Scorecard), TRI data still have a number of limitations.  Some of the more serious are that the TRI data are self-reported by companies and often cannot be checked, that the data generally rely upon estimation methodologies rather than actual monitoring data, and that the data exclude many industries and smaller stationary and mobile sources (whose combined emissions may represent a significant aggregate health risk).

The Pittsburgh region does have a number of other local, state and federal-level information sources available on its source and release data, including the Allegheny County Health Department’s Emissions Inventory on over 100 sites; and the National Emissions Inventory, which accounts for release characteristics that may impact the level of human exposure.  (However, the NEI, like the TRI, is still based largely upon estimated emissions, not actual monitoring data.)  Relatively detailed data are available on mobile releases such as hazardous waste accidents, but many holes remain in data on releases at the point of animal feeding operations, ships and barges (Pittsburgh has one of the nation’s largest inland ports), development near waterways, on-road vehicle emissions, numerous factories too small to report to the TRI, and sources releasing any of myriad chemicals not currently regulated or monitored.

3. Environmental Monitoring

This includes data on the levels of pollutants in “the environment around us”—air, water and land—regardless of its source, and represents potential human exposure.  Following are a few highlights on environmental monitoring data for each of the three media:

·         Ambient air monitoring: As one interviewee suggested for particulate matter, a harmful pollutant found in diesel exhaust and coal-fired power plant emissions, “More may be known about particulate matter in Allegheny County than anywhere else in the country.”  This may largely be true for some other types of air data due to the confluence of a number of endeavors, including a “particulate matter supersite,” a network of more than 20 ambient air monitors throughout the county, and current national-level efforts to merge several regional air monitoring data sources.  However, many holes remain here as well:  cost limits the number of monitors that can be placed, levels can vary widely across an area (especially with varied terrain like Pittsburgh’s), monitors can measure only so many chemicals, and the interactions among various chemicals in the environment are difficult to track.

·         Land monitoring: Brownfields, which include sites heavily polluted by former industrial issues, are a significant issue in Pittsburgh.  While at least one past endeavor created the foundation for a local brownfields database (Pittsburgh RISES), there currently exists no comprehensive source that includes the information necessary to determine pollution levels and potential health risks.  The Allegheny County Chapter of PA CleanWays, with cooperation from the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), has compiled a volume of data on illegal dumpsites.  PADEP also maintains monitoring data on landfills.  Much less data are available on such topics as agricultural soil pollution and radon gas.

·         Water monitoring:  This includes data on potentially hazardous pollution in rivers and streams, municipal drinking water, wells and groundwater.  The Pittsburgh region’s combined sanitary and stormwater sewer systems continue to expel human waste into rivers and streams during wet weather.  While a number of organizations and volunteer groups, some of which feed their data into online databases, collect data on other river and stream parameters, there is still no regularly-maintained, regularly-updated, publicly accessible regional database of pathogen indicator levels for our rivers and streams.  However, 3 Rivers 2nd Nature and 3 Rivers Wet Weather have made significant progress in establishing some initial baseline data.  Many of the municipal drinking water companies in the area post their monitoring data online, but only in the form of aggregate annual reports—and no regular monitoring occurs for the presence of personal care products (e.g., hormones and other pharmaceuticals) that may find their way into our drinking water.  In more rural areas of the region, the paucity of data on ground and well-water quality remains a large concern, especially with the lack of information on toxic metals and pesticides.

4. Human Exposure

Data commonly used for exposure modeling include release data (e.g., TRI), ambient environmental monitoring data (e.g. air quality), estimates of contaminated food intake obtained by population-based dietary  surveys such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES),  activity surveys such as the National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS), biomonitoring measurements taken from groups of people with known exposures, and epidemiologic studies. 

Biomonitoring is the direct measurement of people's exposure to toxic substances in the environment by measuring the substances or their metabolites in human specimens, such as blood or urine. Biomonitoring measurements are the most health-relevant assessments of exposure because they indicate the amount of chemicals that actually get into people (from all environmental sources (e.g., air, soil, water, dust, food) combined. The CDC Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals Second National Report presented biomonitoring exposure data for 116 environmental chemicals in the civilian U.S. population over a 2-year period from 1999 to 2000. Besides lead screening, there is currently little biomonitoring in Pennsylvania. Other states and countries have conducted biomonitoring of breast milk and other innovative programs to measure community exposure to environmental pollutants.

The Allegheny County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) conducts blood lead screening for children ages 0-6 door-to-door in high-risk communities and at fixed-site locations such as day care facilities, head start programs, and health fairs.  Pennsylvania is part of CDC’s Blood Lead Laboratory Reference System (BLLRS), a standardization program designed to improve the overall quality of laboratory measurements of lead in blood. Program staff identified several difficulties in reaching children in this age group and stated that there is still not enough screening going on in the county.

5. Health Outcomes

Although it might seem that it would be easier to obtain health information about a group of people living in a certain place than to obtain environmental information about that place, this is not always the case. Some environmental data, as for example the levels of certain chemicals in the air, can be monitored mechanically, whether continuously or at periodic intervals. This is not possible for health outcomes, which must be reported or detected in order to be known. If people get sick with a certain disease, but do not either seek health care (or die), the disease will not appear on any information “radar screen”. Personal health data, unlike environmental data, also often involves issues of privacy and confidentiality.

Common secondary sources of health information include hospital, emergency department, and ambulatory care records, school nurse records, health insurance company records, medication sales records, birth and death certificates. It is also possible to conduct surveys, screenings, or studies that actively detect risk, exposure, sub-clinical disease, or clinical disease. These surveys, screenings, and studies are sometimes the only way that the incidence and prevalence of an exposure or health outcome can be known in a population. Surveys, although expensive in terms of the required time, staff, and money involved, are especially important to understanding disease in medically underserved populations, such as low-income and minority groups, whose disease profiles may be underrepresented in data from health facilities.

Registry data are very helpful in elucidating relationships between environmental factors and health outcomes. Cancer registries are the prototypical health registry, and in many parts of the country cancer is still the only chronic disease health outcome that has a registry available for examining its relationship with environmental factors. Other than the beginnings of a system for tracking asthma, Pennsylvania has no accurate tracking systems for non-cancer chronic diseases in which environmental factors may play an important role.

6. Built Environment and Health

Health-related data on the built environment encompasses a broad range of information traditionally collected by groups such as economic development organizations, urban planners, and transportation analysts.  Findings for this section fall under four areas:

·         Residential characteristics:  Recent research suggests that urban sprawl may be linked to poor health outcomes due to people walking less, weighing more and having greater rates of hypertension.  A recent Brookings Institution Study (“Back to Prosperity”) utilized various data sets describing the degree of sprawl in our region—data on factors such as how land is being used (e.g., urban, tree-covered), and how quickly urban areas are growing, are available from several sources including the Census Bureau and Landsat satellite imagery.  The Community Information System collaboration has already compiled data on locations of vacant properties; and given the availability of resources, may eventually add various other data items related to neighborhood appearance and safety.  Because walking and bicycling engage people in exercise and decrease vehicle pollution, data on walkability and bikeability are vital to the environmental health community.  While aggregate data on cycling and pedestrian fatalities are available for larger geographic areas (e.g., via the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System), the local group Ghost Bike endeavors to assemble data for smaller-area analysis.  Data on non-fatal injuries also poses a challenge.

·         Businesses and other amenities:  Data on locations of businesses and amenities help to measure how much people are likely to exercise (i.e., walk or bicycle) rather than take a car.  As illustrated by at least two studies, data on grocery stores can be used to analyze access to nutritious foods.  The City of Pittsburgh’s Map Pittsburgh Project previously gathered land use data for roughly one-third of the city, but still has limitations; and data for many businesses and amenities can be obtained from the internet but must be mapped with in-house software.

·         Transportation:  Traffic counts are pertinent to environmental health due to the effects of mobile emissions and time spent sitting in cars.  Several agencies collect data on traffic counts and modes of transportation, including the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Southwestern PA Commission (SPC).  Data sets are often for extended timeframes and don’t often distinguish between different types of vehicles, but SPC’s regional travel survey offers a significant amount of detail for at least a sample of regional residents.  Comprehensive sources of data on bicycling and trail use are still limited because they usually require observational or survey methods.


This report brings together in one place an examination of the state of information related to environmental health in the Pittsburgh region. It is intended to be a starting point, a “to do” for a consolidated regional environmental health information inventory and data needs assessment.  Given the breadth of the topic, and the ever-changing nature of data, potential next steps include (1), soliciting feedback on the initial draft from experts and non-experts, (2) expanding sections on some data topics, and include new ones, (3) posting the document online a “living” interactive document that allows feedback, (4) determining how this project can inform related endeavors, (5) disseminating this report to potential users, (6) convening a task force to address data gaps and political and systemic barriers to furthering the environmental health data base.