Seeing (And Smelling) In Color


Most days I walk to work. It’s just a quick jog up Millvalle, and a right on Penn. Within fifteen minutes, I’m there.

Well, that’s only true if I manage to catch the first traffic light, and this morning I’m left waiting. I linger patiently with plenty of company though; my corner also serves as a popular bus stop for folks commuting to Oakland, and the Southside. There must be one coming soon.

As I wait, my nose takes a tour of the town. (Inhale) There’s a strong smell of savory bacon, and butter from the diner behind me. (Exhale) This is a constant comfort. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll indulge. (Inhale) A nearby bus-goer’s clothes reek of lavender. That strength of the scent is a tad unpleasant, but the coffee in her hand smells divine. (Exhale) I should have made a myself a cup this morning. What was I thinking?

I inhale again, just as a big truck whizzes by. I suppose I can always make a cup when I get- I wheeze. Black plumes of smoke pulse from the vehicle’s rear as it veers around my corner. The air is hot and thick, and now heavier. It smells like molten tar with a sooty aftertaste. It doesn’t help that today is a yellow day. I hold my breathe, and cross the street. The light is green.

Fifteen minutes later, I stroll into work, make myself a cup of coffee, and get ready for another day of saving the world.

For a few months now, I have been working with the SCA in Pittsburgh, PA. I am placed with Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, a non-profit focused on improving Pittsburgh’s air quality to ensure human, environmental and economic health. They’ve been fighting their fight for over 40 years. And now, the Pittsburgh region has some of the strongest air pollution regulations in the country.

But I still have work to do when I get to the office! Just this year, the American Lung Association seated Pittsburgh at #7 for worst air quality in the nation, thankfully, down from #1 in 2008 and 2009. Asthma rates, and other diseases aggravated by the presence of air pollution are high in our region. The problem is very real, but not very tangible.

My job is to increase awareness, and provide the community with resources to protect themselves, and reduce their contribution to the problem. One of my projects is implementing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) School Flag Program, which uses color-coded flags to alert students when the outdoor air quality is poor. Last month we launched the first program of its kind in southwest Pennsylvania at an area school. Go here to watch the news coverage. Today, I’m working with a Summer Program to get the school flags to each of their five locations.

After downing my cup o’ joe, I hurriedly gather my materials and strap them onto one of the office bicycles with some creative bungee cord placement, then it’s a three mile ride for my coworker Sam and me. At the school, the kids are buzzing with energy. I remember how I felt when summer rolled around: alive and a little wild. I take a deep breath, and introduce myself to the class.

The program has five flags. They range from green, which means the outdoor air is at a healthy level, to yellow, orange, red and finally purple, where the air is considered very unhealthy. When the pollution level is orange, the air can start to effect people with asthma, and children. Orange is common in the Summer months, so teachers and coaches may chose to modify outdoor activities, to help safeguard the health of their students. Every day students check the air quality forecast online, and raise the appropriate colored flag outside their school.

We talk about ozone and fine particulates, the history of Pittsburgh’s air, when you can see air pollution and when you can’t. And then at the end, we raise today’s flag. Two students volunteer and grasp the cord. Hand-over-hand they pull it to the top of the pole as the rest of the class cheers. It’s a yellow day, which means its still an okay day to be outside. I leave them for the day, after a few hugs. They’re on their way to go swimming at a pool close by.

These days I think in colors. Green, yellow, orange, red, purple. My nose can sniff out the most pleasant and unpleasant of smells. And I feel tuned-in to my lungs with every breath. It can be frustrating at times when you know all too well what’s in the air you’re breathing, but mostly, I like knowing. It gives me passion in my work with the SCA, and tools to talk to others.