It’s 2:32 a.m. on Tuesday and I can’t sleep. My mind is racing, thinking of all the things I need to do the next day for my work and for my 18-year-old son Gabriel, who has high-functioning autism. Just as I’m drifting off, here comes the familiar stench of early-morning air pollution. I get up and close my windows. Gabriel coughs upstairs, making me worry. He has sleep disorders, so I won’t close his window. I fear it may wake him.

This scenario plays out nearly every week in our Point Breeze home, though usually the stench wakes me from a deep sleep.

We first moved here three years ago to get access to resources for autism, resources that didn’t exist in Southwest Florida or São Paulo, Brazil, our two most recent homes. When I first noticed the morning odor, my husband thought I was imagining things. (My 88-year-old father calls it my “mother’s nose,” saying it must be awful to be so sensitive.) Finally, when my husband started reading others’ accounts of Pittsburgh’s air pollution online and in newspaper articles (written by mothers, not surprisingly), he went and bought air purifiers, one for each floor. We move them from room to room, as needed.

Here’s the irony: I’m a filmmaker with a master’s degree in environmental sciences.

Donna is often awoken by a smell in the middle of the night that has her comparing the air of the Point Breeze neighborhood to São Paulo. (Photo by Aaron Warnick/PublicSource)
Donna is often awoken by a smell in the middle of the night that has her comparing the air of the Point Breeze neighborhood to São Paulo. (Photo by Aaron Warnick/PublicSource)

Before making a decision to relocate, we researched different states and cities where our son’s needs would be met, determined to find a good place to call home where we could thrive as a family. This was a multi-year research process. We settled on Pittsburgh after learning about all the great resources available here for youth with autism. That Pittsburgh was dubbed “most livable city” for raising a family — as well as for Baby Boomers — sealed the deal.

I naively assumed that to get such distinctions, decent air and water quality were givens. I guess whomever made those assessments didn’t include environmental and human health concerns…or didn’t think they mattered enough to affect the rating. (Who did those ratings anyway?)

The crazy thing is when I was awakened those first early mornings, I thought there might be some intense rush hour at Penn and Fifth, because the stench actually resembled weekday mornings in São Paulo, a city of 13 to 20 million, depending on who’s counting.

When I occasionally mention my air quality concerns to Pittsburghers, most laugh it off: “The air is fine!” “You should have seen it before!” “What’s wrong? Don’t like chunky air?”

I will never forget how at a local conference on autism disorders organized by a respected organization, a courageous doctor (who’s often vilified so I will omit his name) drew links between the region’s air pollution and autism. I started to cry.

No one else in the room seemed upset. In fact, I overheard someone call that doctor crazy.

Well, call me crazy, but I just can’t understand how city buses have slogans shouting, “From Steel to Sustainable!” when our air quality is among the worst in the nation, our city’s water has lead, and we’re a no-fracking island in a sea of natural gas development, with occasional reports of streams being polluted by radioactive waste…but “at acceptable levels.” Most of us know there are no acceptable levels of heavy metals or radiation exposure, unless you don’t care about your health.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Pittsburgh! I love the arts and culture, the parks, the great old trees, our neighborhood, the philanthropic spirit, the food. It took me awhile to admit to friends in other places that I’d moved here from São Paulo, one of the most fascinating cities on the planet. But I’m over that. I’ve become an ambassador to “our” city. And I try not to talk about our air, at least with those outside of Pittsburgh, because I’m embarrassed for us. A lovely, revitalized, mid-sized city like ours shouldn’t compete with a megalopolis like São Paulo when it comes to air quality. Hey, at least we have water. As contaminated as it may be in some places, we don’t have water shortages.

We need clean air, water and food to live. I can afford filters for both my air and water. I can move if things get too bad. But many people can’t. And a healthy environment should not be a social justice issue. It’s a human right. Right?

Donna Carole Roberts, M.S., is a filmmaker based in Pittsburgh and is a resident of Point Breeze. She has a master’s degree in environmental sciences, which she pursued because most of her production and broadcasting work and nonprofit service focused on environmental and health issues. She wanted to bring deeper thinking to her passions and productions. She can be reached at

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