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Air Quality in Pittsburgh Metro Area Worsened for both Ozone and Particle Pollution, Finds 2019 ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s 20th annual air quality report finds more than 4 in 10 Americans live with unhealthy air quality, Pittsburgh area’s air quality ranked 7th worst in country for year-round particle pollution

(April 24, 2019) - PITTSBURGH, PA

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Allison MacMunn
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The American Lung Association's 2019 "State of the Air" report found that air quality in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area worsened, not only for ozone (smog), but also for the second year in a row for both the daily and long-term measures of fine particle pollution. Outside of California, Allegheny County is the only county in the United States that recorded failing grades for all three.  

The 20th annual air quality "report card" tracks Americans' exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly. The report found Pittsburgh posted worse levels of ozone pollution than its best ever result in the 2018 report.

"Residents of Pittsburgh and the metro area should be aware that we're breathing unhealthy air, driven by local emissions, upwind sources, and extreme heat as a result of climate change, placing our health and lives at risk," said Kevin Stewart, the American Lung Association's Director of Environmental Health for Advocacy and Public Policy. "In addition to challenges here in Pittsburgh and the 12-county metro area, the 20th-anniversary 'State of the Air' report highlights that more than 4 in 10 Americans are living with unhealthy air, and we're heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health."

This year's report covers the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies in 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history. 

Each year, the "State of the Air" provides a report card on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution, also known as smog, and particle pollution, often called soot. The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: through average annual particle pollution levels and short-term spikes in particle pollution. Both ozone and particle pollution are dangerous to public health and can increase the risk of premature death and other serious health effects such as lung cancer, asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm.

Ozone Pollution in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area

Compared to the 2018 report, the Pittsburgh metro area experienced more unhealthy days of high ozone in this year's report, earning the area an F grade and worsening its ranking to 28th worst in the country.

"Ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases," said Stewart. "When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor's office, the hospital or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten life itself." 

This report documents how warmer temperatures brought by climate change make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. This year's report showed that ozone levels increased in most cities nationwide, in large part due to the record-breaking global heat experienced in the three years tracked in the report. 

Particle Pollution in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area 

The 2019 report also found that both daily and year-round particle pollution levels were significantly higher than in the 2018 report. Nationwide, the best progress in this year's report came in reducing year-round levels of particle pollution, but Pittsburgh's results ran counter to that trend, just as they did last year. Those average levels got worse, continuing to fail the air quality standard, and worsening the metro area's ranking to 7th worst in the nation.

"Particle pollution is made of soot or tiny particles that come from coal-fired power plants, industrial sources, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices. These particles are so small that they can lodge deep in the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can even be lethal," said Stewart. "Year-round particle pollution levels have dropped thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. With few exceptions in the eastern United States, Pittsburgh being one, they continue to improve."

"State of the Air" 2019 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, as these can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The report found that the metro area again had more days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels. In fact, the report found this was Pittsburgh's worst performance since the 2014 report (covering 2010-2012) and ranked the metro area at 10th worst in the nation.

Unlike Pittsburgh, many of these spikes in the western United States were directly linked to weather patterns resulting in drought or to wildfire events, which are increasing in frequency and intensity in those areas of the country due to climate change. 

While the report examined data from 2015-2017, this 20th annual report online provides information on air pollution trends back to the first report. Learn more about Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area rankings, as well as air quality across Pennsylvania and the nation, in the 2019 "State of the Air" report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, and threats to air quality, contact Annette Eyer at [email protected] or 717- 971-1124. 

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About the American Lung Association

The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to improve the air we breathe; to reduce the burden of lung disease on individuals and their families; and to eliminate tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases. For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the coveted 4-star rating from Charity Navigator and a Gold-Level GuideStar Member, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: Lung.org.

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