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A history of bad air makes itself present again in Pittsburgh

Picture taken by Katia Faroun on 05/02/2019

Katia Faroun | Photo Editor

Welcome to Pittsburgh: the city of bridges, champions and some of the worst air quality in the nation.

The American Lung Association released its annual State of the Air report for 2019, evaluating the air quality of cities and counties throughout the U.S. from 2015 to 2017. It conducted measurements of ozone levels and particle pollution, commonly referred to as “smog” and “soot,” respectively. The report studied annual averages and 24-hour levels of particle pollution. In all three areas, Allegheny County received failing grades.

The county moved up two spots from its 2018 ranking to become the tenth-most polluted county in the U.S. based on year-round particle pollution. Additionally, Allegheny County had four more high ozone days and six more high particle pollution days in the 2019 report than in the 2018 one.

The city of Pittsburgh itself claimed the seventh spot on the list of cities most polluted by year-round particle pollution and maintained its 10th-place ranking for cities most polluted by short term particle pollution across both reports.

This data reveals that Allegheny County’s air quality is declining, and Pittsburgh is on track to become one of the most polluted cities in the country based on air quality.

In a statement, Director of Allegheny County Health Department Dr. Karen Hacker acknowledged the urgency of purifying the county’s air.

“The latest report is another reminder that air quality continues to be one of the most pressing public health challenges in our area,” Hacker said. “While we have ramped up our enforcement efforts over the past two years, doing more than our agency has ever done, we must continue to be aggressive and proactive and hold polluters accountable.”

Pittsburgh’s history as an industrial center has contributed to its poor air quality. Steel-producing companies in the Mon Valley, including the U.S. Steel-owned Clairton Coke Works, Irvin Plant and Edgar Thomson Plant, have been major contributors to Allegheny County’s air pollution for decades. These companies have not been in compliance with regulations, according to David Smith, outreach coordinator for the Clean Air Council.

“They’re old factories,” Smith said. “They need updates, specifically equipment updates.”

U.S. Steel was sued by PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council on April 29, 2019 for violating the Clean Air Act at all three of these locations. It had been operating its plants for more than three months without critical pollution control equipment. Without pollution control, these plants have been emitting high levels of sulfur dioxide and likely benzene, both harmful to public health, according to the Clean Air Council.

“Environmental groups, community people, U.S. Steel and the health department need to come together and have meetings and discuss this, because this has been going on for decades,” Smith said.

High levels of air pollutants, specifically ozone and particle pollution, are harmful to personal health, according to the State of the Air 2019 report. Individuals exposed to high ozone levels can suffer from immediate breathing problems such as shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks and increased risk of respiratory problems. Exposure can also lead to the development of cardiovascular diseases, and strong evidence shows that breathing air with high ozone levels can lead to premature death. Long-term exposure can cause health problems such as the development of asthma, risk of death due to respiratory infections and decreased lung function in newborns, according to studies referenced in the report.

Exposure to particle pollution can have similar results. Short-term exposure to particle pollution can result in increased risk of premature death due to strokes, heart attacks, inflammation of lung tissue, asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Studies referenced in the report also show evidence of an increased likelihood of preterm birth in pregnant women exposed to particle pollution. The studies also reveal limitations in lung growth of children exposed to air pollution.

The report lists ways for individuals to minimize their exposure to ozone and particle pollution, including paying attention to forecasts for high air pollution days and avoiding exercising near high-traffic areas or outdoors when air pollution levels are high.

The Allegheny County Health Department plans on addressing the problems presented in the report in the county by updating the Liberty monitor, which measures sulfur dioxide and particle pollution levels, to current EPA standards. It also intends to submit a new sulfur dioxide state implementation plan to the EPA that would address the failure to reach federal standards for particle pollution, according to Hacker.

“We all want and deserve clean air,” Hacker said. “And we will continue to use all of our tools to improve the air that we all breathe.”


This article was originally published in the Duquesne Duke, Duquesne University’s official newspaper.

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