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State of the Air Report Ranks Pittsburgh’s Air Quality as 7th Worst in U.S.

The American Lung Association released its 2019 “State of the Air” report and Pittsburgh did not fare well: Not only did it rank the Pittsburgh area’s air quality as the 7th worst in the country, but it also indicated that when it comes to air pollution things are getting worse, not better.

According to the report, air quality in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area worsened, not only for ozone (smog) but also for the daily and long-term measures of fine particulate matter for the second year in a row.

To put this into perspective: Outside of California, where wildfires rage, Allegheny County is the only county in the United States that recorded failing grades for all three.

For those who aren’t aware, the 20th annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly.

The report found Pittsburgh posted worse levels of ozone pollution than its best-ever result in the 2018 report.

“Residents of Pittsburgh and the metro area should be aware that we’re breathing unhealthy air, driven by local emissions, upwind sources, and extreme heat as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk,” said Kevin Stewart, the American Lung Association’s director of Environmental Health for Advocacy and Public Policy.

He continued: “In addition to challenges here in Pittsburgh and the 12-county metro area, the 20th anniversary ‘State of the Air’ report highlights that more than four in 10 Americans are living with unhealthy air, and we’re heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”

This year’s report covers the most recent quality-assured air quality data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies in 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history.

Each year, the “State of the Air” provides a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollution, ozone pollution – also known as smog – and particle pollution, often called soot.

The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.

Here are some other takeaways from the report:

  1. Pittsburgh metro area experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report, earning the area an F grade and worsening its ranking to 28th worst in the country. “Ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases,” said Stewart. “When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten life itself.” This report documents how warmer temperatures brought by climate change make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up.

  2. This year’s report showed that ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to the record-breaking global heat experienced in the three years tracked in the report.

  3. The 2019 report also found that both daily and year-round particle pollution levels were significantly higher than in the 2018 report. Nationwide, the best progress in this year’s report came in reducing year-round levels of particle pollution, but Pittsburgh’s results ran counter to that trend, just as they did last year. Those average levels got worse, continuing to fail the air quality standard, and worsening the metro area’s ranking to 7th worst in the nation. “Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, industrial sources, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices. These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even be lethal,” said Stewart. “Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. With few exceptions in the eastern United States, Pittsburgh being one, they continue to improve.”

  4. “State of the Air” 2019 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, as these can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that the metro area again had more days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels. In fact, the report found this was Pittsburgh’s worst performance since the 2014 report (covering 2010-2012) and ranked the metro area at 10th worst in the nation. Unlike Pittsburgh, many of these spikes in the western United States were directly linked to weather patterns resulting in drought or to wildfire events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity in those areas of the country due to climate change.

While the most recent “State of the Air” report is discouraging, Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) said there is some good news: There are steps that can be taken locally to help improve area air quality.

“There are several upcoming opportunities for Allegheny County to move towards better air quality,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution. “This includes Allegheny County putting forward a strong PM2.5 implementation plan, revising the coke oven regulations and adopting the city’s clean construction law.”

“Over the period this ALA report covers, the Pittsburgh metropolitan region had an average of 69 percent of its days as ‘not good.’ For Allegheny County, 54 percent of our year was ‘not good.’ What does it mean when between half to two-thirds of all days are not good air days in our region and county? It means that we all pay a price with our health, our families and our reduced prosperity,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project. “We need to pull together to fix this stain on our community. We have a right to breathe healthy air.”

Editor’s Note: Do YOU want to do more to urge city and county leaders to take action to improve air quality? Sign up for our newsletter (just click on the link and scroll down – the form is on the right-hand side) to keep up to date on the latest action items, and consider becoming a GASP member to take a more active watchdog role!

And for those following the issue, here’s all the associated media coverage:

WTAE-TV – “Pittsburgh Gets F for Air Quality from American Lung Association” April 24, 2019 (See updated story later today for interview with Breathe Project)

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