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Despite Improvements, Report Finds Pittsburghers Still Breathe Some Of The Worst Air

Chris Stalnaker
90.5 WESA
Members of the PennEnvironment advocacy group speak at the Allegheny County Courthouse on Thursday, April 6, 2017. (L-R: Albert Presto, Dr. Ned Ketyer, Stephen Riccardi, Patrice Tomcik.)

Although the smokestacks are largely gone, Pittsburghers still breathe some of the sootiest air in the Eastern U.S., according to a report issued Thursday by a local environmental advocacy group.


While an earlier analysis of EPA data showed 2015 was Pittsburgh’s cleanest year since 1989, Stephen Riccardi, a field associate with PennEnvironment, said there’s a new sense of urgency to protect those gains.


“Right now, the stakes have never been higher,” Riccardi said. “We’re facing a federal administration that questions climate science and has really said that they’re going to do everything they can to give the economy back to the fossil fuel industry.”


According to the report, the Pittsburgh metropolitan area experienced 220 days of elevated soot pollution in 2015, more than any city east of the Mississippi. Pittsburgh also experienced 93 days of elevated smog pollution, which ranked third among northeastern cities.


What look like clear skies can mislead us into thinking our health is not at risk, said Dr. Ned Ketyer, a Pittsburgh pediatrician. Ketyer said that the size of particles emitted from industrial complexes has decreased enormously over the years. But while smaller particles won’t blacken the skies, as seen in some historical photos of Pittsburgh, they will invade the lungs and bloodstream more easily.


“And these ... very, very tiny particles also piggyback small toxins -- natural elements like lead or arsenic or cadmium," Ketyer said. "And these are also harmful to health."


The report comes amid promises by President Donald Trump to axe the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 31 percent, rewrite Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and roll back clean car standards.


According to the Allegheny County Health Department, as of January 2017, four of 32 facilities were either not determined or non-compliant with the Clean Air Act. The EPA's 2015 air pollution data, the most recently available, was collected from multiple locations including Lawrenceville, Avalon, Clairton and South Fayette.