Q: What is the Breathe Project?
A: The Breathe Project is working to promote clean air and inspire healthy communities across southwestern Pennsylvania. We use the best available science to understand the quality of the air we breathe, build public awareness and improve community health and wellness.
Q: When did the Breathe Project launch?
A: The Heinz Endowments launched The Breathe Project in the fall of 2011.
Q: What is the Breathe Project doing to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania?
A: Despite improvements over the past few decades, our region’s air still ranks among the dirtiest in the nation, contributing to higher rates of heart and lung disease and other serious health problems and holding back our economic growth. The Breathe Project first kicked off a multimedia campaign to raise awareness of the region’s air quality challenges and to engage the community in finding ways to reduce our dangerous levels of pollution. We continuously update this page and our social media with information about air quality and opportunities for you to get involved.
Q: Last year the Breathe Meter showed that Pittsburgh’s Air was ranked 11th percentile worst. This year it shows that it is 6th percentile worst. What happened?
A: Although it is possible to compare Pittsburgh’s air rankings from year to year, the Breathe Meter is not the right tool to do this sort of comparison. It is meant to provide a snapshot of where Pittsburgh stands when compared with the national monitoring network for a particular year. The reason that the tool should not be used for year-to-year rank comparisons has to do with the fact that the local and national monitoring network changes from year to year. For example, Pittsburgh’s monitoring network shifted from fourteen monitors to ten monitors over the comparison periods of 2011 – 2013, 2012 – 2014, 2013 – 2015 and 2014 – 2016 (three year averages for each comparison period). Also, nationally, the number monitors also changed.
In order to do a valid comparison or air rankings from year to year, the only way to do this properly is to only include the monitors that were in all measurement periods of 2011 – 2013, 2012 – 2014, 2013 – 2015 and 2014 – 2016. This means that there would only be 245 monitors in the national network instead of the 300 used in just the 2014 – 2016 period. In an analysis that just uses the common set of 245 monitors, for the four three-year periods (2011-13, 2012-14, 2013-15, 2014-16), the Pittsburgh region has seen its ranking get worse each year, starting at the 16.7 percentile (for 2011 – 2013), and dropping to 13.1 percentile to 10.6 percentile and to 8.6 percentile (for 2014 – 2016).]
Q: Pittsburgh’s skies seem clean now compared to decades ago. Why are you saying we still have air pollution?
A: Air quality has improved in recent decades throughout the United States (including in Pittsburgh), but southwestern Pennsylvania is falling behind other regions when it comes to cleaning our air. While Pittsburgh is no longer the “Smoky City” with dark skies at noon, air pollution levels in our region are still high enough to harm our health. Air pollutants today are less visible to the naked eye, so they can seem deceptively non-threatening. But even if you can’t easily see air pollution all of the time, it’s still there—and it’s still a dangerous health risk.
Q: What are the health effects of air pollution?
A: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a long list of serious health problems caused by or aggravated by air pollutants. This list includes cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) diseases, cancer, diseases of the nervous system (which can cause brain damage), asthma, birth effects—even eye irritation and the common cold. Air pollution can also lead to premature death, the ultimate health problem. Researchers have studied the number of premature deaths and the rates of other health problems in the Pittsburgh region caused by, or associated with, air pollution. You can read more here.
Q: Who is most at risk from the health effects of air pollution?
A: The elderly, people with heart and lung disease and children are the populations most at risk from the harmful effects of air pollution. “Higher risk” groups also include people who work, play or exercise outdoors—not what you might normally consider “risky” activities! There is emerging evidence that people with diabetes, those living in poverty, the fetus, the obese and people with certain genetic factors may also be at increased risk from air pollution.
Q: How does Pittsburgh’s air quality compare to other U.S. cities?
A: Despite marked improvement in air quality in recent decades, our region is still in the danger zone for a range of pollutants, and has fallen behind most other areas of the country. In 2013, the Pittsburgh area experienced 239 days–or 65 percent of the year–when the U.S. EPA said our air quality was not rated “good.” Overall, Pittsburgh’s air ranks in the dirtiest 10 percent of 338 urban areas for average annual particle pollution based on data from 2010-2012, according to a recent analysis by the Clean Air Task Force. Our air quality also hasn’t been improving at a rate that is keeping pace with federal clean-air standards and regulations, which are becoming tighter as researchers learn more about the toll air pollution takes on our health. Based on 2010-12 monitoring data, Allegheny County was among the 10 percent that failed to meet the 2012 annual particle pollution standard. More than half of U.S. counties with valid monitoring data had already met–or fallen below–that standard a full decade earlier. Source: Clean Air Task Force, 2013.
Q: How does our poor air quality impact our economy?
A: Clean air plays an important role in our region’s economic growth and development—and makes good business sense. Poor air quality impacts the health and productivity of our workforce, leading to increased health care costs and loss of work days. It also harms the health of our children, whose parents must then stay home from work when their kids are sick. Having poor air quality also hinders corporate recruitment efforts, places federal highway funding at risks and potentially subjects Pittsburgh-area businesses to increased regulatory burdens.
Q: Isn’t the problem confined to one part of our region?
A: No, that’s a story you hear a lot, but it’s definitely not the case. While people living near large stationary sources of pollution are at particular risk, the problem isn’t confined to these hotspots; it’s region-wide. Nine out of 10 of the air quality monitors in Allegheny County rank in the worst third in the nation for particle pollution. Six out of 10 of these monitors fall among the worst 10 percent in the country. Sometimes you hear that our local air quality problems really are just limited to the Liberty/Clairton area in the Mon Valley. But even if measurements from the monitor in that area are excluded, Pittsburgh still falls among the worst-polluted cities in the country. Source: Clean Air Task Force, 2013.
Q: I thought most of our pollution blew in from Ohio and other neighboring states upwind. Is that true?
A: It’s tempting to want to say someone else causes our air pollution problem, but that simply isn’t the case. The Clean Air Task Force has calculated that Pennsylvania sources may account for one-half to two-thirds of the PM2.5 monitored in the Pittsburgh region on average.
Q: Where does our local particle pollution come from?
A: In Allegheny County, the largest aggregated source (28 percent of total emissions) is industrial processing including coke battery production, steel mills, metal processing and chemical manufacturing. The second most common source (20 percent) is residential fuel consumption for heating; wood burning (e.g., fireplaces, wood stoves) contributes the vast majority of this source. Mobile sources (largely diesel traffic) contribute up to 30 percent of particulate matter emissions in the county. Source: J. Graham, Clean Air Task Force, 2013.
Q: What can my family, community, and I do to limit our exposure to air pollution?
A: First, speak up for clean air, so that ultimately you won’t need to plan your life around air pollution. Second, until we achieve clean air throughout our region, it’s helpful to pay attention to the air quality forecast developed by EPA, called the Air Quality Index, or AQI. The AQI uses a color-coded scheme to describe how clean or polluted the air is and the associated health effects. The Breathe Project homepage—www.breatheproject.org—reports the daily AQI for the Pittsburgh area, as do most major newspaper and online weather reports. If possible, plan your outdoor activities on bad ozone days in the morning before ozone accumulates. People in at-risk groups should take care to reduce exposure to ozone and particle pollution by limiting/avoiding outdoor activity at “Code Orange” AQI levels or higher, and everyone should exercise caution at “Code Red” levels. Certain air filters may also help reduce indoor exposure to particle pollution.