Despite Its Best Air Quality, Pittsburgh Metro Area Ranks 9th Worst in Nation for Annual Particle Pollution; Finds ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds more than 40% of Americans breathing unhealthy air, Allegheny County one of only 13 counties in nation to earn all ‘F’s’

This year’s “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association finds that the 12-county Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area improved to its best ever year-round level of fine particle pollution, though it continued to fail to meet the standard and ranked as 9th worst among the nation’s most polluted metro areas for this measure.  Short-term fine particle pollution improved slightly, but the area continued to rank 16th worst in the country. Days with high levels of ozone smog improved to their best level ever, but still remained a threat, earning the worst county, Allegheny, an “F” grade and ranking the metro area at 35th worst in the nation. See the full report, based on the three years of data from 2017 through 2019, at Lung.org/sota.  

The worst grades in the metro area for all pollutant measures tracked—daily and year-round fine particle pollution and ozone smog—remained “F’s,” though values for all three improved for a second straight year, and those for the latter two reached their best ever results.  

“Despite these improvements, more must be done to protect the health of people at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart, “Over the three years covered by our report, there were dozens of days when the air pollution levels were high enough to harm health and trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and stroke, placing children, older adults, and people living with chronic lung and heart disease at particular risk. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most harmful and widespread air pollutants, and both can be deadly. In addition, more exposure to particle pollution is linked to worse health outcomes from COVID-19, including more deaths.” 

The American Lung Association’s 2021 ‘State of the Air’ report shows that despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution, more than 40% of Americans live with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution. People of color are significantly more likely to breathe polluted air than white people,” said Stewart. “As the nation works to address climate change and continue reducing air pollution, we must prioritize the health of disproportionately burdened communities.” 

“The burdens of unhealthy air fall heaviest on our children, seniors, lower income communities and residents with existing heart and lung disease. These challenges are only compounded by the increasing well-documented and understood public health threats associated with climate change driven by fossil fuels,” said Stewart.  “Our changing climate demands urgent action to reduce impacts to public health, air quality and our quality of life. Therefore, tightening the cap on harmful carbon emissions within the overall drive to reduce carbon pollution from all sectors is a proactive step that Pennsylvania can take by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The regional efforts to reduce power plant emissions are an important step toward securing critical emission reductions.” 

Ozone Pollution in Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area - Compared to the 2020 report, the Pittsburgh metro area experienced significantly fewer unhealthy days of high ozone as Allegheny County continued as worst county in the metro area for this measure. The county posted 5.8 unhealthy ozone days on average in 2017-2019, a definite “F” grade, but still a clear improvement over its 8.2 days in last year’s report covering the years 2016-2018. The area’s ranking improved to 35th most polluted in the country from 30th worst in last year’s report. 

“Although the Pittsburgh area is currently designated by EPA as ‘in attainment’ of the ozone standard, it is important to recognize that this is a legal determination, but not equivalent to a finding that the air is healthy to breathe every day everywhere. This is the most important reason why the American Lung Association, though it evaluates the same data, does not use the same methodology in its report to determine grades as the EPA does to determine attainment,” said Stewart. 

Particle Pollution in Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area - “State of the Air” 2021 found that year-round particle pollution levels in the Pittsburgh metro area improved to its best level ever. However, based on 2017-2019 data for its worst county, it continued to fail to meet the standard for year-round fine particle pollution, and ranked 9th worst in the United States, and worst east of Arizona, among the nation’s worst metro areas for this pollutant. Allegheny County remained the county with the highest annual average in the metro area, posting a three-year average (called “Design Value” by the EPA) of 12.4 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) for 2017-2019 data, resulting in the area’s new best ever performance, slightly improved from 12.6 μg/m3 in 2016-2018 in last year’s report. 

The report also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. The metro area improved slightly, posting fewer days with unhealthy particle pollution in 2017-2019. The metro area continues to be listed among the 25 in the nation that suffer most from unhealthy levels of short-term particle pollution, its ranking remaining unchanged at 16th worst most polluted. Allegheny County was the most polluted county in the metro area, with a weighted average of 9.5 days (an “F” grade) with unhealthy air quality during 2017-2019, slightly better than the 9.7 days recorded in 2016-2018, covered in last year’s report. 

“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. It can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes and cause lung cancer,” said Stewart. Particle pollution comes from industry, coal-fired power plants, construction, agriculture, vehicles, wildfires and wood-burning devices.”   

See link for a table view of the 12-county Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton metro area’s grades for air pollution in the ‘State of the Air’ 2021 report (covering the years 2017 through 2019).  

This year’s report found that nationwide, more than four in 10 people (135 million) lived with polluted air, placing their health and lives at risk. In the Pittsburgh metro area, air pollution placed the health of over 2.5 million residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, such as older adults, children and people with a lung disease. The report also shows that people of color were 61% more likely to live in a county with unhealthy air than white people, and three times more likely to live in a county that failed all three air quality grades. The report also finds that climate change made air quality worse and harder to clean up. 

The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution (also known as soot) and ozone (smog) over a three-year period using quality-assured data that are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the time the Lung Association begins its work to compile the report (in the summer of 2020 for the 2021 report). Of note, a fully validated national dataset including results from 2020 is not available and hence is not included in the 2021 report that covers 2017-2019. 

The report analyzes particle pollution in two ways: average annual levels and short-term spikes. Both ozone and particle pollution can cause premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular damage, and are linked to developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer.  

Learn more about “State of the Air” at Lung.org/sota-petition and sign the petition for the Biden Administration to promote clean air, a safe climate and environmental justice. Media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, clean air and threats to air quality can contact Val.Gleason at [email protected] or 717-971-1123.   

For more information, contact:

Valerie Gleason
717-971-1123
[email protected]

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