Sunday, October 07, 2007

Cleaner Air, But Not Clean Enough

One of the great environmental success stories of the 20th Century can be seen out of any window in Pittsburgh – the dramatic improvement in air quality that helped transform the “Smoky City” into the “Most Livable City in America.”

Although there is no question that air quality here is much better than it was 60 years ago, how does our air quality today compare to other regions?

The American Lung Association claims that the Pittsburgh Region’s air quality is the second worst in the country. However, their methodology is misleading, because it is based on the unusually high PM2.5 readings at the air pollution monitors in Liberty Borough and Clairton. (PM2.5 consists of soot particles less than 2.5 microns in size, which can cause heart and lung damage.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized that these monitors were not representative of the air quality in the rest of our region, so it designated that portion of the Mon Valley as a separate non-attainment area for PM2.5 pollution.

Much better measures of air quality have been developed by the Pittsburgh Regional Indicators Project ( They average the readings from all of the pollution monitors in the region to determine the air quality that the majority of regional residents are breathing.

These new indicators show that not only are the average PM2.5 levels in the Pittsburgh Region high, they were the 5th worst among the top 40 regions in the country in 2006. (They were the 4th worst in both 2005 and 2004.) Only Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles, and Riverside, California had worse average PM2.5 levels than Pittsburgh in 2006.

In other words, most of us in the Pittsburgh Region are being affected by high levels of PM2.5, and our air quality is worse than in most other large regions. That’s a health problem and a competitiveness problem that we need to address.

A second major type of air pollution is ground-level ozone, often called smog, which is a lung irritant and also affects agriculture. The Pittsburgh Region compares more favorably to other regions on ozone. We ranked 23rd out of the top 40 regions (with #1 being the worst air quality) on average ozone levels in 2006. EPA had planned to redesignate southwestern Pennsylvania as an attainment area for ozone because of improved ozone levels over the past several years, but unfortunately, high levels of ozone that occurred during August of 2007 will likely cause us to remain in nonattainment status. (EPA is also planning to tighten the ozone standard, which would return the region to nonattainment status anyway.)

Pollution problems aren’t limited to the 10-county southwestern Pennsylvania region, though. PM2.5 levels across the border in West Virginia and Ohio are equally bad, and ozone levels there are slightly worse.

What’s causing high levels of particulate and ozone pollution across the entire tri-state region? Power plants, industries, automobiles, and even wood stoves are contributors. However, unlike the smoke that polluted our air in the past, the sources of ozone and PM2.5 can be located many miles away. Studies conducted in the mid 1990s showed that a significant portion of the ozone here was being caused by pollution sources in upwind states. More recently, research done at Carnegie Mellon University found that as much as 80% of the PM2.5 pollution in our region was coming from pollution sources in upwind states.

This means that although we need to reduce emissions here, we can’t make our air clean enough all by ourselves. And if we try to tighten pollution controls here unilaterally, we’ll just make ourselves economically uncompetitive as well as environmentally uncompetitive.

A multi-state solution is needed. EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, adopted in 2005, is designed to reduce emissions in 28 states in the eastern U.S., and is projected to bring southwestern Pennsylvania into attainment for both PM2.5 and ozone by 2010.

Once it’s fully implemented, we’ll all breathe easier.


Anonymous Jami Broom said...

where in pittsburgh do you live? i think it makes a huge difference in how you feel about the quality of the air here. Pittsburgh has now surpassed L.A. as one of the sootiest cities. I wake up at 5am and am having trouble breathing--I can smell the pollution in the air. My lungs hurt! And I'm an otherwise healthy 31 year old.

I disagree completely that the American Lung Association is misleading. I don't think I would have moved back to Pittsburgh had I realized how bad the air would be, and how much it would effect my health, and my life.

Maybe I notice this because I'm not from here originally and I have never gotten use to the stink, esp. in the middle of the night. I mean, are these plants purposefully letting off their toxic pollutants in the middle of the night because they'll think less people will notice?

Just because these plants are only in clairton and Braddock doesn't mean they can't be smelled from other neighborhoods. I live in Wilkinsburg and can tell you that the particles shift from neighborhood to neighborhood depending on which way the wind blows.

I also think that it's bullshit that 80% comes from upstate. I can SEE the smoke rolling in from the south winds, directly from the plants in braddock and clairton.

And DO NOT try to pull the age-old argument that the last thing we should do is get on the poor power plants because we don't want to lose anymore jobs! If we take the initiative on finding better ways to make the air cleaner we will create GREEN JOBS. This city loses scientists and college grads every year, because there are already too many blue collar jobs, not because there aren't any jobs.

6:07 AM  
Blogger Harold D. Miller said...


I live in the City, and I once upon a time lived in Wilkinsburg, so I'm not leading the sheltered existence you may suspect.

The analysis above clearly shows and my commentary says that we DO have an air quality problem here for PM2.5. The problem in Clairton is clearly caused by local sources, and needs to be addressed locally. The air quality elsewhere in the region is not as bad, but still worse than it should be. It is caused both by local sources and by upwind sources. The point is that we cannot fix that all by ourselves. We need to do our share, and upwind states need to do their share, too.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Jami said...

Do you have any idea or resources on how one could go about ensuring that we do our share of reducing pollutants?

2:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think people could stop burning wood in their homes and on their patios. One fireplace, wood stove, or chiminea can create point source pollution and it spills over to many other neighborhoods. There is no room for wood burning in the "Sootiest city." An EPA study showed that the new EPA certified stoves gave off less particulates than the older stoves, but the output proved to be more carcinogenic. Most people don't know that wood smoke is hazardous to their health. The EPA estimates that wood smoke is 12 times more carcinogenic than equal amounts of tobacco smoke. Google wood smoke. See what's in the smoke. Find out what's in it that you can't see. Though you may see waves above someone's wood stove stack, if you had an electron camera you could see what's going into the air you breathe. Google temperature inversion too.

Jami, I agree with you. I developed asthma this fall. I'm in my forties. The air in Pittsburgh never smells clean/fresh to me.

2:18 AM  
Anonymous jami said...

i don't think the air ALWAYS smells bad, just in the early morning--usually between 1am and 7am. which is why i think most people don't notice it as much--they're sleeping.

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sulfur smell hits jefferson hills and pleasant hills also. And I agree that it is in the early morning it is at it's worst. And in my home and yard it is really terrible on certain days! I can't open the windows because the smell is so bad. My daughter has asthma and I have developed chronic sinus issues since moving here.

8:38 AM  

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