A tireless advocate for cleaner air and healthier communities, Rachel Filippini is a prime example of professionalism and leadership. Having served as GASP’s Executive Director since 2004, Rachel’s expertise amplifies the values of the organization, operating with scientific integrity, honesty, and measured judgement to ensure clean air for all. Read on for her Insider’s perspective.
How does the region’s poor air quality affect our economy and business competitiveness?
Cleaner air and a healthy economy go hand in hand. When the air is cleaner, there are less air pollution-related illnesses. A US Environmental Protection Agency peer-reviewed study from 2011 found that in 2010 alone, reductions in fine particulate pollution and ozone pollution achieved by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 prevented 13 million lost workdays. This means fewer costs borne by employers and employees alike for medical treatments, and more days that employees are at work and healthy instead of home sick.
But the Pittsburgh region ranks as one of the top 10 most polluted regions in the nation today with regard to year-round particle pollution (PM2.5). This increases our risk of heart and lung disease, asthma, adverse birth outcomes, cancer, and premature death. This also means we have a long way to go before realizing the economic opportunities that the Clean Air Act represents.
While regulatory limits typically depend, in part, on health effects like the number of people hospitalized, we should not underestimate the impact that air pollution also has on worker productivity. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that ozone, even at levels below current air quality standards in most of the world, has significant negative impacts on worker productivity, especially for people who work outside a lot.
Cleaner air is not only good for residents’ health and productivity—it’s good for attracting new talent and new businesses. Several years ago, Google’s then-vice president and head of operations in Pittsburgh said, “If we can’t offer [clean air and water] to employees we need to recruit to fill the jobs of the future, then we will lose them to cities that do.” Uber’s center director expressed a similar sentiment, saying their recruits “want more bike paths, cleaner air and better public transit.”
What do you want industry to know about new trends, technologies or regulations regarding air quality?
Money spent on reducing air pollution is an investment. It goes to companies that design, build, install and maintain pollution reduction equipment. Regulations can generate market opportunities as they stimulate the creation of new, cleaner technologies.
One example is the high quality jobs created to cut methane emissions. According to research released by Datu Research in April 2017, the methane leak detection and repair industry in the U.S. has a national footprint, with at least 60 companies providing services to oil and gas companies in 45 states.
And a recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project entitled “Don’t Believe The ‘Job Killer’ Hype” found that in the case of fuel efficiency standards, net job creation was estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, with five jobs created for every job lost to regulation.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels will slow down climate change and improve air quality. Fortunately, renewable energy is not only the future, it’s the present. Pennsylvania is seeing large growth and employing many people in these fields. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Pennsylvania is home to over 500 solar businesses, making it one of the largest solar employers in the nation.
In what ways is GASP helping to move the needle of progress forward?
It’s not enough to simply compare ourselves to our past. Current poor air quality conditions are affecting people’s quality of life, making people sick, and shortening lives.
While regulators are working to attain the federal health-based air quality standards for PM2.5, ozone, and sulfur dioxide, they, along with civic and business leaders, must strive to go beyond merely meeting legal standards. A new study from The New England Journal of Medicine shows that even pollution levels below federal standards are dangerous. The researchers used data from nearly 4,000 Environmental Protection Agency air-monitoring stations across the country and the health records of more than 60 million Medicare patients to determine whether people died younger in areas with more pollution. What the researchers found is that they did die younger—even in areas with pollution levels under the national air quality standard.
For nearly fifty years, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) has worked for cleaner air in southwestern Pennsylvania. Our work includes education, advocacy, and legal efforts. In the last six months we’ve commented on more than a dozen permits or regulatory items. These reviews of facilities’ air permits often result in less pollution being emitted and more mandated monitoring and record-keeping, which allows for greater public oversight. The education we do, with a variety of audiences, increase awareness about air pollution and its effects on our health, while also providing participants with the tools and encouragement to be advocates for healthy air. You can learn more about our work at gasp-pgh.org.