Just in time for Earth Day, the American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air report, analyzing air quality and associated risks across the country with data from 2016-2018. While Pittsburgh has made a lot of progress in terms of air quality since the city's industrial heyday, there is still a lot of improvements to be made: the report gave Allegheny County an F-rating in two categories.
The State of the Air report ranked the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton region, which includes parts of Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, as eighth in the country
for the most year-round particle pollution and 16th in the country for short-term particle pollution.
Allegheny County received an F-rating
for its annual number of "high ozone days" and an F-rating for its annual number of "high particle days." The ozone ratings are based on data from the Air Quality Index's recorded number of "unhealthy air days." Particle pollution refers to fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which can come from vehicle exhaust, power plants, heating coal or oil, and other pollutants.
Additionally, State of the Air data shows that around 45% of Americans live in counties with unhealthy ozone or pollution levels. Populations most at risk to poor air quality include children and elderly people, people with asthma, COPD, or lung cancer, people living in poverty, communities of color, and smokers.
Jim Kelly, the Allegheny County Health Department deputy director for environmental health, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
that Allegheny County's air quality was so poor because of industrial pollution in the Monongahela Valley, but that it's not a reflection on the region as a whole.
"Everyone conflates the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh and applies the worst monitor in the county, in Liberty, to the whole county,” said Kelly to the P-G
, referring to the Liberty/Clairton air quality monitor, which is separate from the Pittsburgh air quality monitor. "Pittsburgh once had some of the worst air in the U.S. and it’s made some of the biggest improvements. But we still have a lot of industry.”
The State of the Air data does show that the Pittsburgh area has drastically improved since the report was first published. From 1997-1999, Allegheny County had an an average annual number of 58.2 "high ozone days"; from 2016-2018, the average number was 8.2 days. It's a significant improvement from even a decade ago; from 2010-2012, the average number of high ozone days was 25.2.
Much of the pollution in the area is linked to emissions from the Clairton Coke Works plant, which annually produces 4 million tons of coke, a byproduct of coal mining. A 2019 study published by the Breathe Project showed a significantly higher rate of asthma
among children living near the coke plant. The children exposed to high pollution levels had nearly twice as much of a risk of an asthma diagnosis as other children.
Air quality concerns have only been validated by the current pandemic. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so increasing the risk factor for a population that has already experienced worsened health problems because of the air quality. There have been reduced pollution levels in Pittsburgh, and around the world, as human activity and travel has come to a halt.
State of the Air provided ways that people can help reduce pollution, like driving less and using less electricity, as well as getting involved in local clean energy movements and contacting Congress. But their number one suggestion is to change pollution limits and regulations.
"The science is clear: the nation needs stronger limits on ozone and particle pollution to safeguard health. The current National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and ozone are not sufficient to protect public health," the report says. "Every family has the right to breathe healthy air – and the right to know when air pollution levels are unhealthy."