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Cough, cough! What’s up with the air quality alerts?

A Context reader seeks answers through our Listening Post

  • Russ Walker
A view of PPL's coal-fired power plant at Brunner Island in York County.

 Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A view of PPL's coal-fired power plant at Brunner Island in York County.

Good morning. How’s your news diet? Are you getting the right amount of local vs. national reporting? Are you avoiding the wacky stuff circulating online or popping up in your inbox? Dr. First Amendment needs to know because it’s time for our annual check-up. This week is News Literacy Week. The goal is to help citizens build a healthy diet of news consumption, avoiding the bad stuff (i.e. deliberate disinformation) and indulging in plenty of the good stuff (i.e. news that is grounded in ethics and fairness). Check out the News Literacy Project website for tips on how to read the news and what to watch for when evaluating a news organization’s reporting. As for my personal news diet, I’m a journalist, so it’s … well … extensive. I subscribe to three daily newspapers and one weekly magazine, skim a half dozen more papers and online sites at the office, listen to WITF and occasionally watch network or local TV news. Oh, and I built a bunch of Twitter lists that let me track specific issues or geographic areas. I’d love to know how you consume the news. Drop us a line in our Listening Post. –Russ Walker, PA Post editor

Joe Ulrich/ WITF

A view of PPL’s coal-fired power plant at Brunner Island in York County. (Joe Ulrich / WITF)

Jane from Lebanon asks: “Why am I getting unhealthy air quality alerts when I check the weather on my iPhone? What makes the air unhealthy in central PA?  Fertilizer? Manure? Humidity? Pollution? If pollution, from what?”

Thanks for writing. As a newcomer to central Pa., I was surprised to learn that the region and much of the state have some of the worst air quality in the country. With all the beautiful farms and so much forest land across the commonwealth, why is the air so bad?

As with many things, the answer is complicated. But it boils down to a couple key facts:

Central Pennsylvania gets air that blows in from places like Washington, DC, and western Pa. From DC, we’re getting lots of automobile-generated pollution. Out in western Pa., there’s lots of energy and steel industry related emissions. Emissions from coal plants here and located far from Pennsylvania have a direct effect on our air. When the wind blows from the southwest or the east, that pollution gets blown along with it.

In south central Pa., there are local contributors to air pollution, including the coal-fired Brunner Island power plant on the banks of the Susquehanna in York County. And don’t forget all the diesel trucks that visit the many warehouses in the region and our car-dependent economy. Then there are all those fireplaces and woodstoves, and dust from farms, to mention just a few more factors (see A.D. Crable’s great 2018 story for LNP).

There’s also a topographic factor in many parts of the state. For example, south central Pa. sits between higher ground on three sides. When bad air blows in, particularly in the winter, it can get trapped in the bowl, thanks to what’s called an inversion layer. The same thing happens in the valleys of western Pa., where there was a really bad air pollution event earlier this month (which triggered a public push for action).

Before the Clean Air Act, inversions were sometimes deadly. Did you watch Season 1 of The Crown? Episode 4 takes place amid the Great London Smog event of 1952, when an inversion layer trapped thick smog from coal plants over the city. Some 12,000 are estimated to have perished. The same thing happened in Donora, Pa., in 1948, killing 20 people.

What’s so bad about air pollution? Well, just because you can’t see it — and may not be bothered much by it — bad stuff in the air is bad for your lungs. Some vulnerable groups, like the elderly, children and people with asthma, can die if exposed to high pollution levels to too long. But more importantly, long-term exposure can result in all sorts of health problems. The American Lung Association ties air pollution to cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, low birth weights and higher numbers of sick days in schools and workplaces.

As for those air quality warnings on your iPhone, that information is collected from air monitoring sites around the country, as well as weather satellites. The EPANOAA and state and local agencies collect and share the data with each other and the public.

Jane, there’s lots more to the air pollution topic, so here are a couple starting points: and Oh, and don’t miss StateImpact Pennsylvania — the best source for news about lots of energy and environment issues. Thanks for writing! Our Listening Post is open for your questions. — RW

Best of the rest

This April 2, 2015 file photo shows a Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: This April 2, 2015 file photo shows a Wawa convenience store in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke / AP Photo)

  • Remember the data breach that Wawa revealed in December? Criminals area already trying to sell some of the financial data on the Internet’s black market, according to a new report from the independent cyber security reporter Brian Krebs. That could open Wawa customers to credit and banking fraud, though the company insists that the hackers were unable to make off with customers’ debit card PINs and three-digit credit card codes. As always, keep an eye on your bills.

  • PA Post’s Emily Previti has been reporting for months on how new election reforms could cause big headaches for county elections offices in this presidential election year. On Monday, WITF’s Katie Meyer reported on a speech by Pa.’s top elections official, Kathy Boockvar, who acknowledged that the Dept. of State has its work cut out for it in making sure counties are ready. Boockvar spoke on the same day that several county officials were telling Pa. Senate Republicans how new election reforms are complicating their lives. Read the Capital-Star’s coverage of that hearing.

  • Worried about living in a surveillance state? The city of Lancaster might have figured out a way to appease civil libertarians while also installing a network of cameras. Writing for LNP’s The Caucus, Mike Wereschagin describes the work of the Lancaster Safety Coalition and contrasts the city’s camera network with Pittsburgh’s.

  • Pennsylvania’s Game Commission is looking to expand hunting season for deer and other game. Here’s a write-up from PennLive, and here’s the commission’s press release.

  • The U.S. House of Representatives took some time on Tuesday to honor the late Mike Fitzpatrick, who represented the 8th District for a total of 8 years (spread over two terms). His younger brother, Brian, currently represents the state’s 1st District. Watch the video of the tribute here. Mike Fitzpatrick died early this month.

  • NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly did her job last week when she interviewed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and insisted on asking him about Ukraine. Pompeo, whether you like President Trump’s foreign policy or not, behaved badly by any measure, unable to handle fair questions from a reporter. Kelly wrote a strong piece for The New York Times about her encounters with Pompeo and, two weeks earlier, his Iranian counterpart. Here’s a taste: “There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power — people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations — be held to account. The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible.” Read the whole piece.

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