Your Environment Update for June 5, 2015

  • One of Healthy Ride's new downtown bike rental stations. The program launched in May 2015. Photo: Kara Holsopple

In this week’s Environment Update: A new study finds a link between fracking and low birth weights in Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh joins the bike share nation; and we take a look at how Pittsburgh’s air pollution is affecting cyclists—even off the road.

Fracking Linked to Low Birth Weights

A new study finds that pregnant women living near Marcellus shale gas wells had babies with lower birth weights than mothers living farther from wells. The University of Pittsburgh study adds to a small but growing body of research about the potential health impacts of fracking.

It was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. It looked at over 15,000 births from Washington, Westmoreland and Butler counties, and included over 500 gas wells.

The study grouped mothers by their proximity to drilling and found a difference in birth weight of 21 grams, or about 3/4 of an ounce, between those that lived farthest and nearest to wells.

Pittsburgh Joins the Bike Share Nation

This weekend, Pittsburgh joined Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia in the ranks of American cities with bike sharing programs. The program makes 500 bikes available to rent at stations in 11 neighborhoods around the city. Rides cost $4 for an hour; $2 for a half hour.

David White, director of Pittsburgh Bike Share, says he wants everyone to try it— tourists, first time riders and daily commuters.

“Every trip someone takes on a bike is one less trip they’re taking in a car or in some other motorized way,” White says.

According to James Longhurst, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book Bike Battles, urban bike sharing programs are making a real difference.

“It’s not just a significant part of bike transportation, it’s a significant part of public transportation,” White says.

In Washington, D.C., the bike share program has averaged almost 300,000 rides per month during the summer peak season. That means each bike there is being used about four times a day. Advocates in Pittsburgh note that the bike share prices here are cheaper than a yearly bus pass.

Pittsburgh’s Bad Air Could Be Putting Cyclists At Risk

People usually think of cycling as something that's good for you. But biking also carries some potential health risks. In particular, air pollution can be a big problem for cyclists when they share the road with motorists.

“I’ve had to get off my bike because I’ve been coughing so hard,” says Adam Haller, a bike commuter who also works at a bike shop on Pittsburgh’s south side. “Sometimes I’ll notice, if I’ve been in a really heavy traffic ride, I can almost feel a film on my skin. And the smog doesn’t feel good at all.”

A lot of riders choose recreation trails to escape the exhaust. But new research suggests that air quality can even be a big problem on the city's bike trails.

“A lot of people cycle along the trail network near the rivers. And pollutant concentrations are higher in the river valleys,” says Albert Presto, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies. “So there’s definitely opportunity that cycling—while you’re having all this benefit of the extra exercise—that maybe you are increasing your exposure to, especially, traffic-related pollution."

One of the payoffs of Presto’s research is a color-coded map of the city’s air quality hotspots, which you can actually use to plan your bikes routes.

Most of the research out there shows that exercise, even in polluted places like cities, is still a net benefit to your health.