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Outside/In: What's It Like To Live With Industrial Air Pollution For The First Time?

We’re exposed to plenty of invisible risks in our daily life: toxic compounds in the fabric of our couches, contaminants in our water, and pollutants in the air we breathe. A lot of the time, we don’t think too much about them.

But sometimes, the invisible becomes suddenly, acutely visible.

A story about the air we breathe, the risks we live with, and what it means to become a citizen of a place.

Susan Scott Peterson had been living in Pittsburgh for just a few weeks when she smelled it for the first time. The air was a little thick, a little hazy, and it smelled like chemicals and sewage. Barefoot, she walked around the block, looking for the source of the smell: maybe an open dumpster or a burst sewer line? A reeking trash heap? She couldn’t find anything that explained it.

Credit With permission from Linda Wigington.
Susan’s ROCIS cohort, showing off their air quality monitoring equipment. Back: Preston Shimer, Dave Bernard, Rashmi Baliga, Germiane Patterson, Louise Cannon, Ann Carrick. Front: Leila Srinivasan, Emily Dale, Pam Burrett, Dianne Hall, Susan Scott Peterson, Laryn Finder, Sam Bertenthal. Not pictured: Jessica Kester.

But she soon learned the source of the smell: hydrogen sulfide, a sulfur-smelling gas emitted by the Clairton Coke Works, a factory only fifteen miles south of her house.

The plant manufactures coke, a fuel used in steelmaking—and it’s notorious for violating local pollution regulations.

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It was Susan’s first time living with industrial air pollution, and when she realized that the air she breathed was often thick with pollutants, she was filled with regret and fear - especially for her three-year-old kid.

But what could she do about it? 

That moment was just the beginning of a journey that would put Susan in contact with the invisible surrounding her. 

A journey about the air we breathe, the risks we can live with, and what it really means to become a citizen of a place. 

Featuring Susan Scott Peterson, Stella Peleato, Dr. Deborah Gentile, Rashmi Baliga, and Linda Wigington.

Outside/In is a member-supported production of New Hampshire Public Radio. To support work like this, please consider a donation to the show.

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Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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