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Last week, the American Lung Association (ALA) released its 2013 “State of the Air” report ranking of air pollution levels nationwide. The report finds that over the past few years, air quality in the Pittsburgh metro area has improved modestly.



Decreases in air pollution can be attributed to many factors, including installation of new pollution-control equipment at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Plant, emission reductions from coal-fired power plants and the use of cleaner diesel fuel and engines.


“The fact that the region’s economy has been stable and the population growing when levels of air pollution went down shows us that clean air and a strong economy go hand in hand,” says Matt Mehalik, Sustainable Pittsburgh program manager. “We need more support for clean air policies that add value to the region.”


Despite these improvements, our area still ranks as one of the top 10 most polluted cities in the nation in the ALA report with regard to short-term particle pollution (#7) and year-round particle pollution (#8). Particle pollution (also known as PM2.5) is the mix of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air we breathe, which can increase the risk of heart and lung disease, adverse birth outcomes, cancer and premature death. According to the ALA, Pittsburgh also continues to rank in the top 25 for ozone pollution, which can reduce lung function and worsen asthma.


“As a resident of the City of Pittsburgh, I’m glad to see our city is improving,” says Hill District resident and Clean Water Action steering committee member Beverly Walker. “But it’s obvious we have a long way to go. I want our leaders to do all they can to make sure Pittsburgh not only continues to improve, but does so as quickly as possible.”


After the release of the State of the Air report, a number of environmental advocacy groups in the region called for the City of Pittsburgh to implement and enforce the “Clean Air Act of 2010,” also known as clean construction legislation, as soon as possible. The law requires that projects receiving at least $250,000 in public subsidies use a percentage of cleaner construction equipment to reduce harmful diesel emissions. The legislation should have been implemented within six months of passing, but instead has languished in City Hall for nearly two years.


“Applying the clean construction legislation is a concrete step the City can take to safeguard the health of Pittsburgh residents,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution. “It was recently estimated that the biggest cancer risk in Downtown Pittsburgh’s air comes from diesel vehicles. Enacting this legislation will help protect the hundreds of thousands of people that work and live in Pittsburgh, while simultaneously improving regional air quality.”


Questions sometimes arise about whether our air quality problem is a regional issue as the ALA report indicates or localized to areas with large stationary pollution sources. Indeed, while our air quality is improving modestly, the air we breathe throughout the region still isn’t clean enough to protect our health, as confirmed by an independent analysis conducted recently by scientists at the Clean Air Task Force.


Building on a 2011 report, CATF researchers analyzed data from 2000 to 2011 (the most recent data available), finding that six out of 10 of the air quality monitors measuring particle pollution in the Pittsburgh region ranked in the worst 10 percent of the U.S. for national averages (red box in the figure below).


Figure 1: Annual PM2.5 monitor percentage rankings for Pittsburgh-region compared to national network (Source: John Graham, Clean Air Task Force, 2013)

Some other key findings:
= Nine out of 10 of these monitors were in the worst 25 percent for annual averages.
= Three out of 10 PM2.5 monitors in the area ranked in the worst 10 percent of the United States for daily averages.


Perhaps most shockingly, the Clean Air Task Force found that even the cleanest measured air quality in the area ranked nationwide in the worst 33 percent for fine particle pollution daily and annual averages. That means Pittsburgh’s cleanest air is still dirtier than the air in nearly 70 percent of the monitors analyzed in the country’s network.


Clearly our problem isn’t confined to one neighborhood or community–we all share the air, and the air we all share simply isn’t clean enough.

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