Take a moment to look at the chart above. Let me summarize what I see from local air quality data from 2015, collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

> For particulate matter (PM 2.5) air pollution, the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area comes in 3rd for all U.S. metropolitan areas. That’s 3rd-worst.

> Hilo, Hawaii comes in first in particulate pollution. Because of volcanos. (By contrast, Honolulu has some of the cleanest air in the U.S.)

> Three of the top 10 metropolitan areas with the worst air quality from PM2.5 are in Pennsylvania. (The Weirton, WV-Steubenville, OH area also made the list at #9.)


Here is what we know about particulate matter (PM 2.5), which is one major component of air pollution (another is ground-level ozone):

> PM 2.5 is produced during the extraction and consumption of carbon fuels — oil, coal, natural gas drilled and mined for use in motor engines and power plants — and wood-burning fires. (Wood is mostly carbon; fossil fuels come from the carbon of ancient forests that existed hundreds of millions of years ago.)

> PM 2.5 is a known carcinogen, causing lung and bladder cancers. Other cancers have been linked as well.

> On days when PM 2.5 is elevated — in Pittsburgh, that would be 220 days out of 365 where the air quality is deemed not “good” — more respiratory problems in children with asthma and adults with chronic lung disorders are expected, as are more heart attacks and strokes, leading to more emergency room visits and premature deaths. (The same is true when ozone levels are elevated.)

> Over the last several decades the amount of PM 2.5 that people breathe has actually gone down in the U.S. Anyone who has lived in the Pittsburgh region for many decades would agree that the air quality today is better than it was during steel’s heyday — back in the day. Technological advances in automotive engineering and the energy sector have lessened the amount of PM 2.5 emitted from engines and power plants. Don Hopey says Pittsburgh’s improved air quality, described in a new “State of the Air” report from the American Lung Association, is “better but still bad”:

Much like last year’s report and the one the year before that, the 2017 ALA report found that despite widespread and significant reductions in ground-level ozone and fine airborne particles or “soot,” inhabitants of the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton metropolitan area continue to breathe air that is among the worst in the nation.

The report ranked the region the eighth worst of more than 200 metropolitan areas in the nation for long-term (annual) soot pollution; the 14th worst for short-term or daily soot pollution, and the 29th worst for ozone, the main precursor for unhealthy smog…

“Air pollution in the form of soot and smog poses a serious threat to the health of those all across the region with children and the elderly being among the most susceptible,” said Jim Fabisiak, associate professor of Environmental & Occupational Health with the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. “There are no known completely safe levels of exposure.”

He said the fine particulates can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream, exacerbating asthma and increasing risk of heart attacks, lung cancer and premature death.

> Modern, high-tech industries (there are plenty in Allegheny County) emit particulate matter in smaller quantities than older factories, but the particles emitted are also much smaller (and, therefore, less visible). These very tiny “ultrafine” particles, which are as small as 0.1 micrometers (the average human hair, by comparison, is about 60 micrometers in diameter), are in some ways more dangerous than larger particles. Because of their size, ultrafine particles can “piggyback” chemicals and other tiny particles — lead, mercury, chromium, manganese, to name a few that are themselves toxic to the human body — and make their way through the smallest airways, gaining direct access to the lung’s air sacs, from where they can then easily diffuse into the bloodstream.


There is good evidence that improvement of air quality leads to improvement of the public’s health. That’s good news and it should make us all want to do more to protect ourselves and our children from air pollution’s harmful effects. But we need to remember that cutting emissions of unhealthy air pollution is like putting a filter on a Camel cigarette: the smoke produced is less, and it may be “cleaner,” but smoking cigarettes even with a filter is still highly dangerous! Put another way, cutting back from smoking two packs a day to just one pack — a 50% drop! — is still a bad deal for the smoker. (“Better but still bad.”)

Below is another chart from the same dataset that shows ozone air pollution in Northeastern metropolitan areas. (We’ve addressed ground-level ozone pollution previously on The PediaBlog here.) Pittsburgh ranks third worst, not much behind the Washington D.C. and Philadelphia metro areas, with 93 days in 2015 having elevated smog levels:


A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by my friends at PennEnvironment to comment about the state of our air in Southwestern Pennsylvania in their new report entitled, “Our Health at Risk: Why Are Millions of Americans Still Breathing Unhealthy Air?” At a press conference in the halls of the Allegheny County Courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh, here is what I had to say:

“No one who lives and works — and who breathes the air — in Southwestern Pennsylvania should be surprised by the findings in this new report on air quality. We’ve known for a very long time that air pollution is bad for human health.

We’ve also known for a long time — and this new report confirms — that the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area has some of the worst air quality in the nation. And physicians like myself have observed first-hand the adverse effects of poor air quality on the health of our patients — especially the ones among us who are most vulnerable — infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the poor.

Consider for a moment the individual components of air pollution:

Ground-level ozone (which measurably affects the lung function of every human being);

Particulate matter (a known human carcinogen, also linked to a vast number of human diseases.)

Other air toxics — volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide — all of these affect the health of our friends, neighbors, loved ones, and even perfect strangers, locally, regionally, and globally.

There is now a consensus, reached by decades of peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, that there is no safe level of exposure to any type of air pollution. This report confirms that increased exposure increases the health risk for all of us. Cradle-to-grave risks that include:

— Adverse pregnancy outcomes, including infertility, miscarriages, low birth weight, and prematurity.

— Pediatric neurodevelopmental problems, including ADHD, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. More recent research links air pollution with the development of autism, supporting our grave concern that babies in the United States are being born pre-polluted.

— Asthma, which affects nearly 10% of American children. Poor air quality days are really bad days for children and adults who have asthma, COPD, or other chronic respiratory conditions.

— Heart attacks and strokes in adults, which are more likely as air quality worsens.

— Cancer. In children, benzene (a potent volatile organic compound) is a carcinogen; in adults, particulate matter directly causes lung cancer and is implicated in the development of other human cancers.

— Premature death. It has been estimated that up to 7 million people on this planet die prematurely every year as a result of breathing polluted air, including more than 200,000 Americans. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced that 1.7 million children under the age of five die each year from environmental hazards, mostly air pollution.

Let us not forget that these air pollutants continually alter the chemistry of the atmosphere, warming the planet and changing its climate. What this report reminds all of us is that the solution for improving air quality to benefit health is the same as the solution for combating global warming and climate change: Dramatically lower carbon emissions as fast as possible by industries that extract and utilize fossil fuels and by individuals like us who consume them. It’s something we must do and do now — for the sake of our parents, ourselves, our children, and the ones we haven’t met yet.”



To receive air quality updates in your inbox, go to www.airnow.gov and sign up for daily reports, or download the American Lung Association’s State of the Air app for your mobile device.

The PediaBlog has more on air pollution here.

Saturday, April 22 is Earth Day.