Take a safe breath

CBS3 meteorologist Katie Fehlinger discusses local air quality at TMA Bucks quarterly breakfast

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Words of wisdom: CBS3 meteorologist Katie Fehlinger was the guest speaker at TMA Bucks’ recent quarterly breakfast, which took place at Bensalem Township County Club on March 27. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

While most meteorologists thrive off predicting when the next major storm will hit, CBS3’s Katie Fehlinger gets her kicks from informing viewers of something else, an issue that affects us on a much more regular basis — the weather’s impact on our health.

After joining the Eyewitness News morning team in September 2011, the Lehigh Valley native found her niche in this often forgotten area, reporting on air quality and air pollution, both major factors in causing and enhancing respiratory illnesses.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 27, Fehlinger brought her expertise to the Bensalem Township Country Club, located at 2000 Brown Ave., where she was the keynote speaker at TMA (Transportation Management Association) Bucks’ quarterly breakfast event.

Attendees included members of the local nonprofit, representatives from area businesses, and Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo, the founding president of TMA Bucks.

Once all were settled with heaping plates of bacon, scrambled eggs and danish, Fehlinger, donning her signature newscaster dress and perfectly-styled blond hair, stepped up to the podium shortly past 8 a.m.

“I really geek out about this subject,” she told her audience. “I’m not really sure why, but I think part of it is, there are some really fascinating stories as to how weather directly impacts air quality, and then directly impacts our health.”

Fehlinger provided one such example in the form of a brief video clip, which chronicled how the 14,000-person town of Donora, Pennsylvania, was stricken with a “death bog,” or smog, in 1948, leaving 20 residents dead and countless others suffering from respiratory illnesses.

So what exactly happened? On Oct. 26, the day it all began, Fehlinger explained how the weather was gorgeous. There were clear skies, a light breeze and sunshine. Normally, a cold front will follow soon after, with strong winds mixing up and moving the air. But this didn’t happen for five days. Meanwhile, smoke stacks from plants of American Steel and Wire, which employed nearly half of the town, continuously pumped toxic fumes into the unmoving air.

“People were just breathing it in the whole time,” she said. “Witnesses said that the fog was so big they could taste it.”

The people of Donora were inhaling what Fehlinger referred to as a “cocktail” of pollution particles, which included zinc and lead. Doctors ordered those with breathing troubles to leave town, but that wasn’t an option. Because of the smog, there was zero visibility on the roads. On Oct. 30, the plants were finally given the OK to shut down.

“A lot of the survivors were left with permanent respiratory damage after all of this,” she said. “Now, this isn’t the only location where a reported temperature inversion had a death toll to it. Thankfully, people and lawmakers started to realize that this is a very real problem. In Los Angeles, the relatively regular occuring smog problem led California to pass its first state pollution law, and that was in 1947. So they were taking action before the Donora incident.”

California’s law was followed by the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Still, according to Fehlinger, air pollution is still a major problem across the country, including the Greater Philadelphia region, with a staggering 740,000 people suffering from a respiratory illness in the Delaware Valley.

During her airtime, Fehlinger addresses these individuals by forecasting air quality, which can be lifesaving for individuals who work outside, the elderly and children, who have poorer lung function than most. She described two types of pollution that can significantly impact air quality, and ultimately, health — fine particle pollution, which is caused by temperature inversion (what happened in Donora) and ozone.

“It’s the most beautiful days that provoke this problem,” she said, explaining how the sun and wind all “bake together” to create a harmful, ground level ozone. “There are very real health risks to this.”

These risks include heart attack, stroke, chronic bronchitis, premature death from lung disease, and aggravated asthma. In the case of a pregnant woman who breathes in particle pollution such as dust or smoke, it can circulate through her body, leaving the child with a higher chance of developing autism. Fehlinger said that in 2014, the World Health Organization labeled air pollution as the world’s largest single environmental risk.

“It is so dangerous because you cannot get away from it. You have to breathe. So when the air is poor quality, it can have a major impact on people. So where I come in with all this is to assist,” she said. “I didn’t really feel like any other stations were covering it.”

Especially on a seemingly perfect day, there can be hidden toxins in the air, and Fehlinger helps viewers plan accordingly by reporting on them. They can then safely approach their day, whether that means working from home or limiting their exposure to the outdoors.

Steve Noll, executive director of TMA Bucks, added how the organization provides a similar service through its Air Quality Partnership program. On “code red” and the less severe “code orange” days, when air quality is low, organizations throughout Bucks County help spread the word through social media and in-house announcements. When Noll first joined TMA in 2001, he recalls eight “code red” alerts that summer. Thankfully, things are getting better.

“I can’t remember the last time air quality levels reached ‘code red.’ I think that speaks volumes that people are taking notice that there’s an air quality issue. They’re taking action. We’re not there yet but we’re getting there,” he said. “Each air quality alert that we send out is reaching 250,000 individuals.”

Fehlinger echoed his sentiment. Though Bensalem probably won’t see a “death bog” over the town anytime soon, it’s still urbanized as far as the suburbs go, and she encouraged residents to take air quality warnings seriously.

Visit tmabucks.com for more information on upcoming events, including the 2019 Golf Outing on Monday, May 6, at Northampton Valley Country Club. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com