Pittsburgh Metro Area Continues to Rank Among Worst 25 in Nation for Two Measures of Air Quality, But Improved for All Three Measures Tracked, Finds 2020 ‘State of the Air’ Report

American Lung Association’s annual air quality report finds nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air.

Editor’s Note: The full report, as well as UPDATED trend charts and rankings for metropolitan areas and county grades WILL BE available at www.Lung.org/SOTA beginning at 12:01 a.m. EDT April 21, 2020.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report found the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area tied for the eighth-most polluted city in the nation for its year-round average levels of fine particle pollution. It was one of only nine in the nation earning a failing grade for this measure and was the only metro area outside of California to do so. Although its result continued to fail to meet the air quality standard, the area nevertheless improved to match its best-ever year-round average concentration of fine particle pollution.

For the measure of daily spikes of fine particle pollution, the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV metro area also improved, posting fewer days with unhealthy levels of this pollutant. However, the area still ranked as 16th worst polluted in the nation, an improvement over its 10th place ranking in last year’s report, and it was the only one of the country’s worst 25 cities that was east of Utah.

The Pittsburgh metro area improved slightly for ozone smog, too, but continued to fall among the worse metro areas in the U.S. for this pollutant, ranking 30th most polluted out of 229 metro areas for days with high levels of ozone. Ozone and particle pollution are the nation’s most widespread air pollutants and both can be deadly.

The American Lung Association recognizes the Pittsburgh metro area’s improvements over the years for all three measures of air pollution tracked in the report. But despite those improvements, Allegheny County not only was the most polluted county in the metro area for all three, but was one of only 14 counties in the nation that posted failing grades for those three measures.

The Lung Association’s annual air quality “report card” tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of particle pollution and ozone during a three-year period. Once again, the report found that nearly half of all Americans were exposed to unhealthy air in 2016-2018. In the three-state, 12-county Pittsburgh metro area, ozone air pollution placed the health of over 2.6 million residents at risk, including those who are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution such as older adults, children and those with a lung disease.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which has been responsible for dramatic improvements in air quality. However, Pittsburgh area residents continue to breathe some of the most unhealthy air in the country, driven by emissions from vehicles and industrial sources, both locally generated as well as from upwind, placing their health and lives at risk,” said American Lung Association Director of Environmental Health Kevin Stewart. “Furthermore, with nearly half of Americans breathing unhealthy air, our ‘State of the Air’ report shows that nationally, because of climate change, the nation is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to protecting public health.”

Each year “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, also 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 asthma attacks, cardiovascular damage, and developmental and reproductive harm. Particle pollution can also cause lung cancer, and new research links air pollution to the development of serious diseases, such as asthma and dementia.

This year’s report covers 2016, 2017 and 2018, the years with the most recent quality-assured data available collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies. Notably, those three years were among the five hottest recorded in global history. Rising temperatures lead to increased levels of ozone pollution. Changing climate patterns also fuel wildfires and their dangerous smoke, which increase particle pollution. Ozone and particle pollution threaten everyone, especially children, older adults and people living with a lung disease. Although this report does not cover data from 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern. Learn more about that at www.Lung.org/covid-19.

Ozone Pollution in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV Metro Area

Compared to the 2019 report, Pittsburgh experienced slightly fewer unhealthy days of high ozone in this year’s report.

“Ozone pollution can harm even healthy people, but is particularly dangerous for children, older adults and people with lung diseases such as COPD or asthma,” said Stewart. “Breathing ozone-polluted air can trigger asthma attacks in both adults and children with asthma, which can land them in the doctor’s office or the emergency room. Ozone can even shorten people’s lives.”

This report documents that warmer temperatures brought by climate change are making ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up. Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2020 report than in the last three “State of the Air” reports. Both Allegheny and Beaver Counties earned “F” grades in this year’s report, recording 24 and 12 days, respectively, of high ozone during the report period.

Particle Pollution in the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, PA-OH-WV Metro Area

 “State of the Air” 2020 found that the year-round particle pollution level in the metro area’s worst-performing county (Allegheny) was better than in last year’s report. The level matched its previous best, recorded over the 2013-2015 period, but it still failed to meet the national standard for this pollutant.

“Particle pollution can lodge deep in the lungs and 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, diesel emissions, wildfires and wood-burning devices.

“Year-round particle pollution levels had dropped in recent years thanks to the cleanup of coal-fired power plants and the retirement of old, dirty diesel engines. However, the increase we’ve seen nationally in particle pollution in this year’s report is a troubling reminder that we must increase our efforts to reduce this dangerous pollution,” said Stewart.

“State of the Air” 2020 also tracked short-term spikes in particle pollution, which can be extremely dangerous and even lethal. Although the area improved with fewer days when short-term particle pollution reached unhealthy levels, compared with last year’s report, Allegheny County did not match its best performance, in the 2017 report, but tallied 28 days high in fine particle pollution during the report period and earned an “F” grade. 

On a positive note, the following five counties in the metro area all earned “A” grades for fine particle pollution in this year’s report, posting zero days with average concentrations in the unhealthy ranges, according to the air quality standard: Armstrong, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties, PA, and Brooke and Hancock Counties, WV. That placed these counties on the list of cleanest counties in the nation for this pollutant.

“We all have the right to breathe clean, healthy air. The 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act serves as a critical reminder that Americans breathe healthier air today because of this landmark law,” said Stewart. “At the same time, this year’s report shows that we must stand up for clean air—especially to safeguard our most vulnerable community members. Our leaders, both here in southwestern Pennsylvania and at the federal level, must take immediate, significant action to ward off climate change and other threats to the quality of the air we all breathe.”

While the report examined data from 2016-2018, this 21st annual report also provides air pollution trends back to the first report. Learn more about Pittsburgh’s rankings, as well as air quality across the region and the nation, in the 2020 “State of the Air” report at www.Lung.org/SOTA. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, and threats to air quality, contact Valerie Gleason at [email protected] or 717-971-1123.

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