A new report says air quality in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area has improved significantly, but the region doesn’t get the credit it deserves for reducing pollution levels.
Issued Thursday by Pittsburgh Works Together, the report draws on previously released, local, state and national pollution data to conclude that not only has the region’s air quality gotten better, but also it is improving faster than in other metropolitan regions of the U.S.
The 35-page report was also critical of environmental organizations, the media and the American Lung Association’s annual nationwide air quality report, for, it claimed, overstating the region's air pollution problem.
Morgan O’Brien, co-chair of the nonpartisan association of labor, industry and civic leaders, said the report was issued because, “Businesses considering bringing jobs to the region and families thinking about moving here deserve to have an accurate picture of the area.”
The report states that since 2020, concentrations of nearly invisible airborne particles, ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have all been significantly reduced in the region and now meet federal standards, an achievement announced last month by the Allegheny County Health Department based on preliminary monitoring results.
Much of the reduction has come as the economy has thrived, as the region’s power plants have switched fuel from coal to natural gas, and from better vehicle and industrial emissions controls, the report said.
“Far from being at the bottom of the class,” the report states, drawing a contrast with the failing grades awarded the region by the annual ALA report, “the Pittsburgh region is actually more like a C+ student on air quality — better than some areas, worse than others. In other words, the region is pretty typical for one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas.”
Jeff Nobers, Pittsburgh Works executive director, sounded a similar theme in discussing the region’s asthma issues. He cited an Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America index that ranks Pittsburgh 54 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas. The index is based on measures for asthma prevalence, for which Pittsburgh ranks worse than average; deaths from asthma, for which it is average; and asthma ER visits, for which it received a better than average score.
Mr. Nobers said the organization isn’t “dismissing the severity of asthma,” but rather it is noting that Pittsburgh’s air quality is “typical of other major metropolitan regions.”
Painting a much different picture is the Breathe Project, a coalition of 47 environmental organizations, academics and public health professionals that the new report criticized for failing to celebrate the region’s air quality improvements.
According to a Breathe Project news release, Pittsburgh Works Together is a “fossil fuel backed industry front group” that cherry-picked data in an effort to minimize the region’s industry-caused air problems and their impacts on public health.
“There can be no victory laps on air quality achievement in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Matt Mehalik, Breathe Project executive director, in a release. “We have serious challenges. Attempts to muddle this picture comes at the expense of residents who experience negative air quality on a daily basis and who suffer the health consequences of ongoing air pollution.”
The Breathe Project release states that Allegheny County ranks in last place for attainment of annual federal PM 2.5 standards and has lagged behind for decades. By 2019, 99% of the fine particle monitors in the U.S. had met the PM 2.5 standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and 94% had met the more stringent World Health Organization standard of 10 micrograms per cubic meter. Allegheny County did not meet either threshold, but it may reach attainment of the federal standard this year.
“The facts show that we are laggards when it comes to complying with bare minimum standards,” Mr. Mehalik said.
The Pittsburgh metropolitan region is ranked as eighth worst for annual particle pollution among 204 U.S. metropolitan regions by the American Lung Association in its 2020 “State of the Air” report. The Pittsburgh Works study ranks it 11th.
The Heinz Endowments, which formed the Breathe Project in 2011 and still provides some financial support, stated in a release that the Pittsburgh Works report downplays the human health impacts of the region’s air pollution. It also stated that the Breathe Project and the American Lung Association relied on independent scientific studies to play an important role in raising public awareness of air quality issues in the Pittsburgh region.
“Dealing with the facts of our air quality in a direct and honest way,” it stated, “is the only hope our region has of making it better.
Exposure to fine airborne particles, which can be inhaled into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, has been linked to increased incidences of heart and lung disease, asthma, and stroke. An April 2020 study by Harvard University researchers found long-term exposure to higher concentrations of airborne particle pollution significantly increases the death rate for those infected with COVID-19.