The Lehigh Valley suffers from poor air quality due to transportation. More eco-friendly means of transportation may help improve the health and safety of residents. (Xinzhao Li/B&W Staff)

South Bethlehem endures air quality issues

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Andrea Wittchen, president of the Lehigh Sustainability Network, said a large amount of diesel traffic passes through South Bethlehem daily, which is decreasing the air quality. This can cause cardiovascular issues and affect people with asthma or other lung problems.

Benjamin Felzer, professor of environmental science, said diesel engines are a major source of air pollution, due to warehouses in the Lehigh Valley and heavy truck traffic.  

“The other interesting thing is the Lehigh Valley may have worse pollutants than in some surrounding areas due to the nature of the valley,” he said.

Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association, said a lack of eco-friendly transportation in the South Side has been contributing to poor air quality as well and encourages carpooling whenever possible. 

“Most communities recognize that transportation is one of the biggest sources of air pollution locally, so you want to encourage the decrease in the single occupant vehicle situation and find how you can incentivize that,” he said.

Wittchen said there has to be more community outreach and involvement. She said that has been lacking on the South Side and has always been a challenge with residents who live close to areas that flood and are affected by the poor air quality. 

Wittchen said programs need to be established to address the poor habits the city encourages through its urban planning and amenities offered to residents. 

“We have tractor trailers going through our businesses across the river who are spewing small particulate matter and are degrading the air quality on the South Side of Bethlehem in particular,” Wittchen said. 

Stewart said the old-fashioned infrastructure of many South Bethlehem houses is not equipped for the shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, which the city needs to address to improve the health and safety of South Side residents.

Felzer said the air quality is impacted by the sulfate aerosols that cool the climate, while black carbon inversely warms the climate creating competing effects that generate climate extremes. He said this is particularly noticeable during the warm summers here in South Bethlehem. 

“When we get heat waves in the summertime, I think our major problem is that not everybody can afford an air conditioner,” Felzer said. “I actually know some people who are considering leaving the Lehigh Valley to move further north because it’s just too expensive to cool their home in the summer with all these heat waves. It’s uncomfortable sitting inside during the day when it’s so hot outside.” 

Wittchen said outdated heating systems in many residents’ homes also interferes with the area becoming more environmentally friendly. 

Wittchen said many of the older homes in the area are still running on older heating systems which can be dirty, polluting and inefficient. 

She said there needs to be a way for low-income people in these communities to affordably make their homes more energy efficient. It would require switching to a different heating source or possibly putting solar panels on their roofs to “deliver better solutions to the lower income communities.” 

Wittchen said the way the community approaches these various environmental issues needs to be addressed through better resident involvement in council decisions. 

“One of the things that we had suggested was that these public meetings, some of them be specifically focused on inviting leaders of the community, those kinds of communities that are most affected by this, to the meetings or holding the meetings in their communities,” she said. “For example, at a community center or a local church, where they are used to going to meet, and it’s convenient so you don’t have to drive there.” 

Felzer said when it comes to future building developments, it’s critical that the city can balance the importance of modernization and sustainability in urban planning. 

“I will point out there has to be a balance between development and making the development sustainable,” he said. “That’s going to be the major challenge moving forward is how we continue to develop the city of Bethlehem.” 

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