Prove your humanity

Despite improvements to air quality in recent years, the Pittsburgh region still has some of the worst air pollution in the country, according to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report. 

Pittsburgh’s air showed improvement, but it still got an F in ozone and particulate matter and ranked 9th worst in the country for long-term particle pollution, which is associated with heart and lung disease. 

The area improved for a second straight year for all three measures that we looked at, and that clearly is progress in the right direction,” said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the American Lung Association. But the other side of the story is the fact that this is one of a handful of places around the country that get that gets F’s for all three pollution measures that we look at.” 

The area was 16th worst for short-term particle pollution. It fared better — at 35th worst in the country — for ozone, which can exacerbate lung conditions like asthma. But the region still had an average of 6 unhealthy ozone days a year from 2017-2019.

“It’s kind of like the kid who comes home from school and instead of getting a 30 percent on the test, now they’ve got a 50 percent on the test. They’re still failing,” said Stewart. “Until we actually get to the A’s with good, strong standards in place, our work will not be done.” 

The Philadelphia, Lancaster, and Berks County areas also received poor grades for their air quality. The Harrisburg area received passing grades for its air. 

The biggest sources of air pollution in the Pittsburgh region are from cars, power plants upwind of Pittsburgh, and heavy industry, like US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works in the Mon Valley.

 Some of that air pollution has decreased in recent years — and the city’s air quality has subsequently improved. 

Business groups in the Pittsburgh area said the report downplays those improvements. For example, in January, Allegheny County Health Department said it was meeting all federal air standards for the first time. 

Jim Kelly, Allegheny County Health Department Deputy Director of Environmental Health, said in a statement: “While we have made great strides with our efforts to improve air quality, we also understand that work remains, particularly in the Mon Valley. As such, the ACHD will continue to be aggressive with enforcement, transparent with our data, and innovative with our policies.”

The report is based on the number of unhealthy air quality days and EPA monitoring data. Since the most recent EPA data dates to 2019, it doesn’t yet reflect cleaner air during the pandemic. 

But Stewart said the 2020 data may be an outlier and shouldn’t be considered “a determinant of whether we’re achieving air quality.”

Even as Allegheny County achieved compliance with air standards, the Pittsburgh region’s air pollution hurt poor and Black people worse than others. A recent study found children near large pollution sites had higher overall asthma rates than others in the county. These children, the study found, lived in areas with higher low-income and minority populations than the rest of the county. 

“Even if an area might be passing an air quality standard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the air is always good to breathe all the time for everybody in that area,” Stewart said. “The only way you got an A in our report is if there are zero bad air days.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.