Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4:48 p.m. Tuesday to include remarks from the Allegheny County Health Department.
The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report once again gives Allegheny County a failing grade when it comes to air quality.
The 21st annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly. This year’s report covers the most recent quality-assured air quality data available in 2016-2018.
Here are the key takeaways about our area:
Pittsburgh ranks 8th on the list of cities in the U.S. most polluted by year-round particle pollution. The report notes that Pittsburgh is the only community in the list of top 25 most polluted cities that is east of the Mississippi River.
Pittsburgh ranks 16th on the list of cities most polluted by year-round PM2.5 pollution.
Allegheny ranks 16th on the list of counties most polluted by year-round particle pollution.
Allegheny County received an F grade for the number of days with high levels of ozone.
Allegheny County also received an F grade for the number of days with high particle pollution.
One piece of positive news: Pittsburgh did have fewer unhealthy air days on average, one of only two cities on the list of 25 most polluted cities that saw improvement over last year.
“While our overall ranking has improved slightly, at the end of the day our region is still failing – an F is an F — and that is unacceptable,” said Rachel Filippini Executive Director of GASP. “Unfortunately, nothing in this report should come as a surprise to local residents or the Allegheny County Health Department. Locally, ACHD knows what needs to be done: It can improve air quality by revising the County’s coke oven regulations and developing strong regulations that impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events.”
“Each year the American Lung Association publishes its State of the Air report. This report is a call to action about the importance of the impact air quality has on health. The report published in 2020 reflects data from 2016-18. Based on this data, the county received failing grades for high ozone days and 24-hour particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). However, the Allegheny County Health Department is pleased to report that our most current data from 2019-20 demonstrate that we are making significant progress and we will continue to aim for further improvements.
She added that the report again underscores the need for better funding of Allegheny County’s Air Quality Program to allow for more robust monitoring and enforcement.
On a national level, the “State of the Air” 2020 found that in 2016-2018, more cities overall had days with high levels of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2015-2017, and many cities measured increased levels of year-round particle pollution.
Report authors note that the most recent report coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, the landmark law that has driven improvements in air quality over its history.
“This is critical because far too many communities reported air pollution that still threatens health, and climate change impacts continue to threaten to progress,” they wrote. “Further, harmful revisions and setbacks to key protections currently in place or required under the Act threaten to make air quality even worse in parts of the country. ‘State of the Air’ 2020 shows that we must not take the Clean Air Act for granted.”
The report also shows that too many cities across the nation increased the number of days when particle pollution soared to often record-breaking levels. More cities also suffered from more days when ground-level ozone, also known as “smog,” reached unhealthy levels. Many cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase as well.
Here are some key takeaways from the national data:
45 percent of people in the United States live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution – more than 8.7 million more than last year.
42 percent of people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone – 3 million more than last year.
More than 21.2 million people suffer from year-round particle pollution.
The ALA said its “State of the Air” 2020 report adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. The three years covered in this report ranked among the five hottest years on record globally. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution followed, putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work cities are doing across the nation to clean up.
It should be noted this is the fourth year in a row that worsening air quality threatened the health of more people, despite other protective measures being in place.
“Climate change clearly drives the conditions that increase these pollutants,” the report reads. “The nation must do more to address climate change and to protect communities from these growing risks to public health.”
The report called out several ongoing threats to our air quality. They included:
A weakening of the Clean Air Act and Cleaner Cars Standards
Removing limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
Diminishing funds for air pollution enforcement
In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly provided the following response to the report:
“Each year the American Lung Association publishes its State of the Air report. This report is a call to action about the importance of the impact air quality has on health. The report published in 2020 reflects data from 2016-18. Based on this data, the county received failing grades for high ozone days and 24-hour particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). However, the Allegheny County Health Department is pleased to report that our most current data from 2019-20 demonstrate that we are making significant progress and we will continue to aim for further improvements.”
Kelly goes on to cite examples of what the department called “successes,” adding that the department had applied for several grants.
“To reduce air pollution in the region, ACHD recently submitted two applications to the EPA’s Targeted Airshed Grant Program. The goal of the program is to reduce air pollution in the nation’s non-attainment areas. Submitted proposals by the Health Department include clean vehicles for the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, clean tugboats, and an electric switching locomotive.”
Check back, this story will be updated with local reaction and links to associated media coverage.
Report: Pittsburgh Region Among Worst in Nation for Air Quality, published by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
State of the Air Report Once Again Ranks Pittsburgh as One of the Worst. What to Do? published by NEXT Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s Air Quality Gets Failing Grade…Again, published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Lung Association Report Focuses on Good, Bad, Ugly of Region’s Air Quality, published by the Observer-Reporter
Report: Pittsburgh’s Air Quality Still Among Worst in the Country, published by KDKA Radio
Climate Change Undercuts Air Pollution Improvements, published by WESA