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UPDATED: Allegheny County Again Gets F in “State of the Air” Report, Remains Among Top 10 Most Polluted Cities in U.S.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 4:48 p.m. Tuesday to include remarks from the Allegheny County Health Department.

The American Lung Association’s 2020 “State of the Air” report once again gives Allegheny County a failing grade when it comes to air quality.

The 21st annual air quality “report card”  tracks Americans’ exposure to unhealthful levels of ozone and particle pollution, both of which can be deadly. This year’s report covers the most recent quality-assured air quality data available in 2016-2018. 

Here are the key takeaways about our area:

  • Pittsburgh ranks 8th on the list of cities in the U.S. most polluted by year-round particle pollution. The report notes that Pittsburgh is the only community in the list of top 25 most polluted cities that is east of the Mississippi River.
  • Pittsburgh ranks 16th on the list of cities most polluted by year-round PM2.5 pollution.
  • Allegheny ranks 16th on the list of counties most polluted by year-round particle pollution.
  • Allegheny County received an F grade for the number of days with high levels of ozone.
  • Allegheny County also received an F grade for the number of days with high particle pollution.
  • One piece of positive news: Pittsburgh did have fewer unhealthy air days on average, one of only two cities on the list of 25 most polluted cities that saw improvement over last year.

“While our overall ranking has improved slightly, at the end of the day our region is still failing – an F is an F — and that is unacceptable,” said Rachel Filippini Executive Director of GASP. “Unfortunately, nothing in this report should come as a surprise to local residents or the Allegheny County Health Department. Locally, ACHD knows what needs to be done: It can improve air quality by revising the County’s coke oven regulations and developing strong regulations that impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events.”

“Each year the American Lung Association publishes its State of the Air report. This report is a call to action about the importance of the impact air quality has on health. The report published in 2020 reflects data from 2016-18. Based on this data, the county received failing grades for high ozone days and 24-hour particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). However, the Allegheny County Health Department is pleased to report that our most current data from 2019-20 demonstrate that we are making significant progress and we will continue to aim for further improvements.

She added that the report again underscores the need for better funding of Allegheny County’s Air Quality Program to allow for more robust monitoring and enforcement.

On a national level, the “State of the Air” 2020 found that in 2016-2018, more cities overall had days with high levels of ozone and short-term particle pollution compared to 2015-2017, and many cities measured increased levels of year-round particle pollution. 

Report authors note that the most recent report coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, the landmark law that has driven improvements in air quality over its history. 

“This is critical because far too many communities reported air pollution that still threatens health, and climate change impacts continue to threaten to progress,” they wrote. “Further, harmful revisions and setbacks to key protections currently in place or required under the Act threaten to make air quality even worse in parts of the country. ‘State of the Air’ 2020 shows that we must not take the Clean Air Act for granted.”

The report also shows that too many cities across the nation increased the number of days when particle pollution soared to often record-breaking levels. More cities also suffered from more days when ground-level ozone, also known as “smog,” reached unhealthy levels. Many cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase as well. 

Here are some key takeaways from the national data:

  • 45 percent of people in the United States live in counties with unhealthy levels of either ozone or particle pollution – more than 8.7 million more than last year.
  • 42 percent of people in the United States live in areas with unhealthy levels of ozone – 3 million more than last year.
  • More than 21.2 million people suffer from year-round particle pollution.

The ALA said its “State of the Air” 2020 report adds to the evidence that a changing climate is making it harder to protect human health. The three years covered in this report ranked among the five hottest years on record globally. High ozone days and spikes in particle pollution followed, putting millions more people at risk and adding challenges to the work cities are doing across the nation to clean up. 

It should be noted this is the fourth year in a row that worsening air quality threatened the health of more people, despite other protective measures being in place. 

“Climate change clearly drives the conditions that increase these pollutants,” the report reads. “The nation must do more to address climate change and to protect communities from these growing risks to public health.”

The report called out several ongoing threats to our air quality. They included:

  • A weakening of the Clean Air Act and Cleaner Cars Standards
  • Removing limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry.
  • Diminishing funds for air pollution enforcement

In a press release issued Tuesday afternoon, ACHD Deputy Director of Environmental Health Jim Kelly provided the following response to the report:

“Each year the American Lung Association publishes its State of the Air report. This report is a call to action about the importance of the impact air quality has on health. The report published in 2020 reflects data from 2016-18. Based on this data, the county received failing grades for high ozone days and 24-hour particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). However, the Allegheny County Health Department is pleased to report that our most current data from 2019-20 demonstrate that we are making significant progress and we will continue to aim for further improvements.”

Kelly goes on to cite examples of what the department called “successes,” adding that the department had applied for several grants.

“To reduce air pollution in the region, ACHD recently submitted two applications to the EPA’s Targeted Airshed Grant Program. The goal of the program is to reduce air pollution in the nation’s non-attainment areas. Submitted proposals by the Health Department include clean vehicles for the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, clean tugboats, and an electric switching locomotive.”

Check back, this story will be updated with local reaction and links to associated media coverage.

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0 Comments

  1. MJ Dowiak says:

    Thanks you GASP for posting this report and continuing your mission to protect public health.
    Two-part question- How is the Allegheny County’s 2019 PM2.5 “Design Value” of 12.6 ug/cubic m calculated?
    Does the Liberty Borough monitor near Clairton skew the average reported value. and if so. would the county PM2.5 meet the NAAQS value of 12.0 if Liberty was removed from the calculation?

  2. Amanda Gillooly says:

    Dear Mark,

    There are two primary national ambient air quality standards for pm2.5: an annual standard and a daily standard. The ALA report looks at the annual standard, which is that the annual mean, averaged over 3 years, cannot exceed 12.0 μg/m3. The most recent data the ALA examined were through 2018 so the “design standard” for Allegheny County was the 3-year average concentration from 2016-2018. Here’s an excerpt from the State of the Air report that explains this in more detail: https://gasp-pgh.org/wp-content/uploads/Pages-from-SOTA-2020-1.pdf

    As for the various monitor sites in Allegheny County, yes, Liberty is the highest. We attached an excerpt from ACHD’s Air Quality Annual Report to show the rankings. The full report is available here:
    https://www.alleghenycounty.us/uploadedFiles/Allegheny_Home/Health_Department/Resources/Data_and_Reporting/Air_Quality_Reports/2018-Air-Quality-Annual-Report.pdf

    We hope that helps! If you have any other questions or if we can be of further help, please don’t hesitate to send me an email at amanda@gasp-pgh.org.
    -Amanda, communications manager

    1. MJ Dowiak says:

      Thanks Amanda
      I looked at the EPA link you posted and went through their Excel data summary.
      For Allegheny Co. there were 9 monitoring stations listed on Tab 5a. The 2016-2018 Annual Design Values (ADVs) for each station range from 9.1-12.6 ug/m3, not inc. the invalid results. Liberty was the highest at 12.6. The Allegheny Co. value reported by the ALA was 12.6, not the county average, which would be less than the 12.0 standard. Is this correct?
      If so. then the ALA uses the highest value of all the regional monitoring stations, whereas the actual county average would be below the 12.0 standard. but not by much.

      Mark D

      1. Amanda Gillooly says:

        Hi Mark! Sent you an email with an attachment – I hope that helps answer your question! If we can be of further help, just give us a holler! -Amanda

  3. Amanda Gillooly says:

    PS – in case it’s helpful, ACHD posted a 2019 data summary online sometime recently:
    https://www.alleghenycounty.us/uploadedFiles/Allegheny_Home/Health_Department/Resources/Data_and_Reporting/Air_Quality_Reports/2019-data-summary.pdf
    -Amanda

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