Does Pittsburgh Need Another Air Quality Study?

May 4, 2016

U.S. Steel's Clairton power plant is one of the top polluters in Allegheny County.
Credit Flickr user joseph a

It’s no secret that the air quality in Pittsburgh isn’t great. Last month, the American Lung Association ranked southwestern Pennsylvania as having the eighth highest level of year-round pollutants and the fourteenth highest level of short-term particle pollution in the nation.

So, is another air quality initiative necessary?

According to Allen Robinson, director of the new Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions at Carnegie Mellon University, the answer is yes.

He said the new center, funded in part by a $10 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will provide researchers with “unprecedented insight into literally block-by-block air quality” in Pittsburgh.

Robinson said CMU researchers will be collecting data from approximately 100 sites throughout the Pittsburgh area, in addition to mobile monitoring, every two minutes. Across the city, CMU will be collecting data on a wide variety of pollutants, from the fine particulate matter in vehicle exhaust to the sulfur dioxide belched out by fossil fuel-burning power plants.

By comparison, Allegheny County targets its monitoring to 25 hot spots, mostly near known sources of pollution such as highways, power plants and shale gas drilling sites, according to Jim Thompson, deputy director at the Health Department. The purpose is to make sure air quality levels comply with EPA standards. That means not every potential pollutant is being measured at every air monitoring site.

Thompson said Allegheny County’s air monitoring network is one of the largest of any county nationwide, but that scientific data captured doesn’t always translate to the world of policy and lawmaking.

That’s one challenge that CMU hopes to address with the new center, by bringing together chemists, air quality experts, public health professionals, epidemiologists, economists and public policy scholars.

“Putting the results in a framework that’s more conducive for policy makers to think about. When we say, ‘Air pollution in Pittsburgh is 10,’ well, what does that mean?” Robinson said. “But if you think about it in terms of what the cost is in public health and things like that, putting it in a framework that you can then compare it to other decisions you’re trying to make.”

Robinson said he is hopeful the data gathered at the center will inform policy decisions around transportation planning, shale gas development, electric vehicle subsidies and other issues.

But even tougher than communicating with lawmakers, said Jim Thompson, is communicating with the public.

“It’s more of a challenge communicating air pollution issue to the general public that ultimately put the pressure on elected officials and decision makers,” he said.

Robinson said the data could be used to build an app to help joggers plan their routes to avoid places with poor air quality, for example.

“I do think air monitoring is a fairly dense subject that a lot of people don’t necessarily understand,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “Giving people tools to look at what’s happening in their own neighborhoods and communities and how certain activities might help to increase or decrease pollution would be helpful for people to understand.”

CMU researchers also hope to break down some of the barriers between people working on the issues of air quality and climate and other people working in the world of energy generation, said Robinson.

“Thinking about those two problems in a more holistic way, because traditionally they’ve been sort of stovepiped, both at the regulatory level and I think even at the academic level,” he said.

Researchers will gather similar air quality data in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, which Robinson said will help them understand the different factors that contribute to air pollution, including traffic patterns and topography.