Pittsburgh's Air Quality Ranks Poorly In National Report

Apr 20, 2016

A map by AIRNow.gov shows the Air Quality Index for the Pittsburgh region on a moderate day.
Credit AIRNow.gov

Pittsburgh’s air quality has a ways to go before it's considered healthy, according to the American Lung Association’s latest State of the Air report.

“We report based on how many unhealthy air days they receive for ozone and daily particle pollution,” said Paul Billings, national senior vice president of advocacy. "We also look at the EPA’s reports for year-round particle pollution as well."

Nationally, the southwestern Pennsylvania area rose from 9th to 8th in highest year-round pollutant levels and fell from 10th to 14th for short-term particle pollution. 

The Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area tested one point over the national average at 13 micrograms per cubic meter. Counties include Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland in Pennsylvania; Brooke and Hancock in West Virginia; and Jefferson County, Ohio.

Billings said there are lots of different environmental factors that contribute to poor air quality, which has been linked to higher rates of asthma, diabetes and heart and lung disease.

“It’s cars and trucks and other vehicles in the community," he said. "It’s oil and gas extraction. It’s also coal-fired power plants, particularly upwind coal-fired power plants that blow pollution downwind."

According to the State of the Air report, Allegheny County has an F rating for its particle pollution.
Credit American Lung Association / State of the Air Report

Pennsylvania receives transport pollution from nearly 300 coal-fired power plants in 15 states and the District of Columbia, much of which originates in plants lining the Ohio River for hundreds of miles.

U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works and Shenango Coke Works, which shuttered in January, have historically been major contributors, according to the Heinz Endowments' Breathe Project launched in 2014.

Weather and topography -- being situated in a valley or in between mountains -- can also add to pollutant concentration in the air, Billings said.

While Pittsburgh’s air quality is still considered unhealthy, he said it is getting better.

“Pittsburgh showed improvements and actually had the best levels we’ve ever reported in the report we’ve been doing for 17 years,” Billings said.

He credited the improvement to increases in transit use, regulation of pollution-causing industries and public awareness about the importance of air quality.

The American Lung Association reported that more than half of Americans, close to 166 million, live in areas with high levels of ozone and particulates in the air.

Bakersfield, Calif. ranked worst in the country for short-term and long-term particulate pollution, while Los Angeles ranked worst for ozone pollution.