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GASP’s Plain-Language Guide to Understanding Local Air Quality

When it comes to air quality, western Pennsylvania has come a long way from its “hell with the lid off” days. But anyone who lives and breathes here knows we still have a long way to go: There are still far too many days when our air is unhealthy to breathe. 


At GASP, we believe that knowledge is power so we put together this quick, plain-language guide to give a broad overview of what air pollution we grapple with locally and where they come from, how to report odor complaints and ways you can be an air quality change-maker in your community.



What Types of Air Pollution Should I Be Concerned About?



While there are myriad types of air pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set health-based standards for six: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Known as criteria pollutants, they are widespread and pose significant harm to both the environment and human health. 


Then there are Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), sometimes referred to as air toxics, which are pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects such as birth defects. 



Where Does Air Pollution Come From?



Air pollution comes primarily from three sources:

  1. Natural causes like wildfires and even volcanoes. 

  2. Mobile sources like emissions from planes, trains, and automobiles (also: ships and construction equipment, among others).

  3. Stationary sources like steel mills, factories, compressor stations, and power plants. If you want to learn more about the major stationary sources of air pollution in your neighborhood, check out GASP’s air quality permits clearinghouse. 


So…What’s That Smell? And How Do I Report It?



They say, “The nose knows.” When you’re greeted by a foul odor when you go out your front door, it’s important to make an air quality complaint to the Allegheny County Health Department (for folks who live in Allegheny County) or the state Department of Environmental Protection (for those who live in one of the outlying counties like Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland). 


To make the best-possible complaint, it’s important to have an idea of what it is you’re smelling and what may be causing it. You can learn about all this here. Once you have a better understanding of what’s in the air, here’s everything you need to know to make an air quality complaint online or by utilizing the Smell Pgh app.


How Can I Protect Myself From Air Pollution?



They say an ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure, and the same is true when it comes to protecting yourself from poor air quality. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of what the air quality is like in your neighborhood. 


You can stay in the know by checking out the, an EPA website that tracks the Air Quality Index (AQI) throughout the country. The AQI gives you a forecast of what your local air will be like, and what associated health effects are. 


The EPA describes it this way:


Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.


 For each pollutant an AQI value of 100 generally corresponds to an ambient air concentration that equals the level of the short-term national ambient air quality standard for protection of public health. AQI values at or below 100 are generally thought of as satisfactory. 


 When AQI values are above 100, air quality is unhealthy: at first for certain sensitive groups of people, then for everyone as AQI values get higher.


The AQI is divided into six categories. Each category corresponds to a different level of health concern. Each category also has a specific color. The color makes it easy for people to quickly determine whether air quality is reaching unhealthy levels in their communities.


Residents here in Allegheny County can also track air quality through the health department’s website, which includes an interactive air quality dashboard.


Once you understand what air quality is like in your neighborhood, you can pre-plan your outdoor activities, so you minimize your exposure to air pollution. You can also help minimize the impact of poor air quality by avoiding areas with heavy traffic and instead opting for back streets for that morning walk.

How Else Can I Monitor the Air I Breathe?



In addition, there are a number of websites where you can obtain real-time air quality information:

  • SmellPGH – The Smell PGH app was developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab, with support from the Heinz Endowments in collaboration with clean air groups like GASP to crowdsource smell so researchers can track how pollutants travel across the Pittsburgh area. CREATE Lab worked with Allegheny County Health Department officials so they receive all of the odor complaints at the end of each day so ACHD can use the information to better monitor air quality. It should be noted that ACHD air quality staff have repeatedly downplayed the importance of the Smell PGH app. 

  • – PurpleAir monitors are relatively low-cost, easy-to-install sensors that give real-time data for levels of particulate matter. When you visit the website, you can search your geographic location to see readings in your area.

  • Breathe Project’s Breathe Cams – The Breathe Project operates Breathe Cams, which provide high-resolution, zoomable, 24-hour live feeds of Pittsburgh’s skyline, as well as the Mon Valley and the Ohio River Valley. 


How Can I Make a Difference When It Comes to Local Air Quality?



Making an effort to understand what’s in the air and making air quality complaints are just the first steps to being clean air ambassadors.


It’s also important to make sure your voice is heard when it comes to these issues. Consider writing a letter to the editor, attending an upcoming Allegheny County Board of Health meeting, as well as contacting your representatives in Harrisburg and Washington, DC to share your concern for cleaner air. 


You can also help support the organizations on the front lines of air quality advocacy. Consider becoming a member of GASP. Also be sure to bookmark our website, and join the conversation by liking us on Facebook and Instagram and following us on Twitter. You can also check out and consider following our friends and allies in the fight for clean air.

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