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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Sustainable Pittsburgh Calls On Local Employers To Help Improve Air Quality

Flickr user Paul Sihvonen-Binder

NASA uses houseplants to help absorb dangerous pollutants on spaceships, and according to Matt Mehalik of Sustainable Pittsburgh, it’s an easy way for offices and other workplaces to keep their air clean as well.

Certain plants can absorb formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and other chemicals that can contribute to a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome.”

Mehalik said there are lots of simple ways for workplaces to improve indoor air quality, many of which will be discussed at an upcoming Green Workplace Challenge workshop on Thursday.

The all-day event at UPMC East in Monroeville will also include scientific information about the region’s air quality, which Mehalik describes as “challenging.”

“For example, in 2013, there were 239 days that the U.S. (Environmental Protection Agency) rated this region’s air quality as not ‘good,’” Mehalik said, referencing the six-level air quality index that ranges from “hazardous” to “good.” “That’s 65 percent of the year where there are some health risks.”

As a result, he said, people living in the Pittsburgh region face a cancer risk as much as 20 times greater than those living in rural areas of the state.

While individual workplaces may not have much influence over pollution controls at power plants, coke factories and natural gas compressor stations, Mehalik said managers and workers can take steps to help improve both indoor and outdoor air quality.

“A lot of buildings and workplaces don’t change the air filters (in their HVAC systems),” he said. “If you have vehicles that use diesel, (make) sure your fleet is observing the rules for not idling more than five minutes.”

He also suggested organizing carpools and incentivizing the use of public transit.

Speakers at next week’s event include representatives of the Allegheny County Health Department, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, Tree Pittsburgh, the Heinz Endowments, UPMC and the Green Building Alliance, among others.

Eighty-seven organizations are participating in the challenge this year, which beseeches groups to save energy and water, reduce waste and improve air quality within their means.

The workshop costs $10 for GWC participants, $25 for non-participant members of Sustainable Pittsburgh and $35 for non-participation non-members. Those interested in attending can RSVP at the GWC website.

The air quality workshop is the second-to-last of a series of events meant to help employers meet their sustainability goals. Previous workshops have covered renewable energy, transportation and employee engagement. The final workshop, to be held in September, will look at how buying and growing food locally can impact sustainability.

Since the challenge began three years ago, more than 200 workplaces have participated.