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Pitt Researchers: Steel Industry Pollution Responsible for Toxic Metals in Pittsburgh Soil

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

For years, Mon Valley residents who live in the shadow of U.S. Steel’s Mon Valley Works facilities have attended Allegheny County Board of Health meetings to demand action on emissions issues.

Some residents, like David Meckle of Glassport, have long blamed their dying trees and lackluster gardens on years - decades - of steelmaking-related soil contamination.

Now, research from geologists at the University of Pittsburgh shows that historic coking and smelting dropped toxic metals in Pittsburgh’s soil - particularly in the East half of the city.

Here’s what a recent PittWire story had to say about the findings, which were recently published in the journal Environmental Research Communications (and can be read here):

“Pittsburgh’s steel industry may be largely in the past, but its legacy lives on in city soils. New research led by Pitt geologists shows how historical coking and smelting dropped toxic metals in Pittsburgh’s soil, particularly in the eastern half of the city.

While the most severe levels of soil lead come from concentrated sources, those aren’t the only factors that can make dirt harmful to garden or play in, especially in a city with industrial history like Pittsburgh.

Concentrations of soil metals were generally higher in the east end of the city, likely a result of wind patterns, and the city’s geography also plays a role, the team found. Levels were higher in the two large, flat valleys that crisscross Pittsburgh: the historical paths of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.

These valleys still influence local weather patterns, serving as the site of temperature inversions that trap pollution close to the ground. Along with worsening air pollution, the team theorizes, inversions may have given heavy metals from historical industrial sites a chance to settle from the air into the soil.”

By way of background: The geologists searched for pollutants including arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and copper.

“While lead tends to dominate conversations about soil metals, others often fly under the radar — like cadmium, which can replace the calcium in bones and increase the chances of a fracture,” the PittWire story continued.

Learn more in this story in PublicSource and Inside Climate News:

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