The welcome news from the Allegheny County Health Department last Friday that the Liberty monitor met the annual and daily federal air-quality standard in 2013 for fine particulate matter is a breath of fresh air. It marks a step forward in the long-term undertaking to move our region from the bottom to the top ranks nationally in air quality ratings.
We at the Breathe Project intend to use this momentum to redouble our efforts to achieve clean, healthy air for everyone in the Pittsburgh region. We realize that despite this important gain, there is still a lot of work yet to do. The race to win consistently clean air is a marathon, not a sprint—and there are many challenging, uphill miles left to cover.
The annual average in 2013 at the Liberty monitor was 12 micrograms per cubic meter, just meeting the annual PM2.5 standard set in 2012 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 24-hour PM2.5 average of 31.1 micrograms per cubic meter at Liberty fell below the EPA standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter set in 2006. However, these data alone are insufficient to begin the celebration.
More data needed
It will take three consecutive years of monitoring data at or below the PM2.5 limits in order for EPA to formally declare that we are in “attainment” of the air quality standards. The point of requiring three years of data is to help distinguish between genuine, long-term air quality improvement and an aberration.
To reach attainment, the Liberty monitor must have readings below the standard for the next two years; already in 2014, there have been several days when air quality in the Liberty/Clairton area entered the “orange” and “red” zones, with dangerously high fine particle pollution levels comparable to Beijing.
On those days, we have received air quality complaints at the Breathe Project from as far away as the East End and the South Hills. As mobile monitoring data from Carnegie Mellon University researchers confirms, what’s in the air we breathe in the Mon Valley doesn’t just stay in the Mon Valley.
Particles aren’t the only problem
There’s no doubt that fine particulate pollution poses a significant health threat to Pittsburgh-area residents, contributing to heart attack, stroke, lung disease, asthma, adverse birth outcomes—and even premature death. But Allegheny County is plagued with a host of other air pollution problems, too:
= Allegheny County cancer risk from air toxics ranks in the top 2 percent in the United States, according to a 2013 report from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities. Air toxics are a class of pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects. There are more than 200 Census tracts in southwestern Pennsylvania with a point source cancer risk over 10 in a million (EPA uses a threshold level of “one-in-a-million” probability of lifetime cancer risk above which it deems to be unacceptable or cause for concern). Industries in the Liberty/Clairton area are a major source of air toxics in our region.
= The county is in nonattainment for both the 1997 8-hour ozone standard (0.08 ppm) and the 2008 8-hour ozone standard (0.075 ppm). Ozone—or “smog”—is harmful to breathe and low levels can be deadly.
= Allegheny County is one of just 38 counties nationwide in nonattainment for the 2010 sulfur dioxide (SO2) standard; SO2 is linked with a number of adverse respiratory effects, and studies show a connection between short-term exposure and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions, particularly in children, the elderly, and asthmatics. In the Liberty/Clairton area, levels of SO2 exceed the federal limit by almost double.
Monitors don’t tell us enough
Monitoring networks are designed to demonstrate attainment of federal air quality standards, and our region’s topography may frustrate the ability to accurately determine air quality for all locations, according to a 2011 report by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force.
Our monitors are located in a small number of strategically chosen sites across the county. But anyone who has navigated the hilly terrain of Pittsburgh knows that our local topography is complex, which differentially impacts our air quality; in general, people living in river valleys that trap emissions tend to have greater exposures to air pollution than people on the tops of hills.
Exposures also vary depending on proximity to local industrial sources, such as power plants or coke plants, and transportation sources, such as highways or heavily trafficked areas like Downtown. Your personal health risk from air pollution also depends on “hyper-local” sources, such as woodstoves and fireplaces.
In other words, the concentrations recorded by our network of air quality monitors are unlikely to be fully representative of the levels of pollution to which the population are actually exposed—especially for people living in hotspot areas.
We deserve better than “moderate”
According to an analysis by the Clean Air Task Force, the Pittsburgh area experienced 239 days in 2013 when the EPA said our air quality was not rated “good.” On these days (representing more than 65 percent of the year), we were told that our health risk from air pollution ranged from “moderate” to “unhealthy.”
Speaking last May at The Air We Breathe conference held Downtown on World Asthma Day, world-renowned environmental epidemiologist Joel Schwartz of Harvard School of Public Health noted that there is no evidence for a threshold below which air pollution has no health effects. That means that even “moderate” levels of pollution can have very serious—and potentially deadly—impacts on our health.
If we measured Pittsburgh’s air quality against more stringent World Health Organization (WHO) standards—and even the recommendations of EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee of scientists who provides regulatory advice—we would have even more days each year recognized as “unhealthy.”
We deserve clean, healthy air every day—not just 35 percent of the time.
Most Livable City?
While there’s no doubt the 2013 monitor data in Liberty is welcome news, it’s important to keep this “milestone” in perspective.
The health department says, “…air in Allegheny County is the best it’s been since the Industrial Revolution.” That’s the period from 1760 to some time between 1820 and 1940 marking the transition from hand production methods in predominantly agrarian, rural societies to the use of special-purpose machinery for mass production.
The Industrial Revolution raised the standard of living for some people and brought about a greater volume and variety of factory-produced goods. But it also resulted in grim employment and living conditions for the poor and working classes. Children toiled long hours in hazardous jobs. Housing was inadequate, overcrowded and unsanitary. Disease was rampant. The air and water were horribly polluted.
Surely it’s not enough to have the cleanest air since this time in history when our city earned the notorious reputation of “Hell with the lid taken off.” Rather than benchmark our progress relative to two centuries ago, we should look at where we stand today relative to other American cities as a baseline.
Today we know how to put scrubbers on coal-burning power plants and how to reduce air pollution from our large industrial sources. We know how to retrofit diesel school buses and trucks and how to control wood smoke. We know how to improve our energy efficiency and how to make smarter transportation choices. We know how to harness the energy of the wind and sun to make cleaner power.
Just how far behind is Pittsburgh in this century?
Our 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 Clean Air Task Force.
It’s not just a problem in the Liberty/Clairton area. Nine out of 10 monitored areas in Allegheny County rank in the worst third in the nation for particle pollution. The monitor in North Braddock was still over the federal limit of 12 micrograms per cubic meter from 2010-2012 and didn’t meet the older annual standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter until 2007-2009.
And we aren’t improving as quickly as other urban areas.
Based on 2010-2012 monitoring data, Allegheny County was one of just 53 counties out of 519 nationwide (10 percent) that failed to meet the 2012 annual fine particle health standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, according to EPA. More than half of these counties had already met–or fallen below–that standard a full decade earlier. Moreover, 90 percent of the counties in violation of the older annual standard (15 micrograms per cubic meter) came into compliance before Allegheny County finally did in 2009-2011.
It’s time to stop comparing Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh 200 years ago—or comparing Pittsburgh to our own incremental pace of present-day improvement.
We must instead compare Pittsburgh to other modern cities in the U.S.—and even globally— that are competing with us for the most talented employees and the best companies. We must compare Pittsburgh to the ideal Pittsburgh we all envision for our great city—a city where the air is clean and safe every day and doesn’t jeopardize the health and future of our children with every breath.