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Pittsburgh region saw about two months of unhealthy air days in 2020, study finds

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Reid Frazier
/
StateImpact Pennsylvania

Residents of the greater Pittsburgh region suffered through 57 days of bad air in 2020, according to a new report. That puts the area among Pennsylvania’s worst for unhealthy air.

The report, published by environmental advocacy groups PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, Frontier Group and the PennPIRG Education Fund, looked at air pollution records from the Environmental Protection Agency in regions across the country. The data focuses on ground-level ozone and fine particulate pollution, which comes primarily from burning fossil fuels and wildfires.

The Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area — which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties — is home to more than 2.3 million residents. Most of the air pollution in the region comes from industrial sites and traffic, according to the report.

Olivia Ross Perfetti, western Pennsylvania field organizer with PennEnvironment, called for stricter controls for industrial polluters at a press conference Tuesday.

“One of the main and most significant contributors to air pollution here in Pittsburgh is industrial pollution from the ten most toxic industrial facilities here in Allegheny County,” she said.

PennEnvironment released a list of the region’s top polluters in June, which found the 10 biggest industrial polluters in Allegheny County released more than 1 million pounds of pollution in 2019.

The report found that bad air was not a uniquely urban problem.

Lancaster, Pa., saw 107 days with ozone or particulate matter above what the EPA considers safe, the most in the state.

Air pollution is also not a uniquely Pennsylvania problem.

More than 70% of Americans were exposed to more than a month of ozone levels or particulate pollution that exceed what the EPA considers “good” in 2020, an index of 50 or below, according to the report.

Around Pittsburgh, bad air quality has led to alarmingly high rates of asthma among children. A 2017 study found 22% of children in Pittsburgh schools had asthma. The national average is just above 10%.

“It seems like we all know someone who suffers from asthma or another health problem exacerbated by dirty air. As I reach out to my constituents in the district, those folks as far away as Indiana Township are being affected by air pollution,” said Allegheny County Councilwoman Anita Prizio.

Bad air quality has also been linked to heart and lung disease, shortened life span and certain cancers.

Prizio advocated for increasing fees for industrial polluters as one way to clean up the air.

“Many times these fees are seen as the cost of doing business. We must ensure that these fees are robust enough to effectuate change,” she said.

Pittsburgh’s air has improved over the years, but it still got an "F" in ozone and particulate matter pollution from the National Lung Association this year. It ranked 9th worst in the United States for long-term particle pollution.

Allegheny County officials say air quality in the county has gotten better. The Health Department announced that in 2020 federal air quality standards were achieved at all eight of the county’s air quality monitors for the first time in history.

But environmental advocates have argued there is much more work to be done.

“As chair of Allegheny County Council's Sustainability Committee, I've heard firsthand the impacts of this pollution, as well as the steps we could take to ensure that everyone has clean air to breathe every day of the year," Prizio said.

The report acknowledged several steps made by governments to cut down on pollution and encouraged more efforts. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald recently signed an ordinance requiring industrial polluters in Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley to create a plan to lower emissions during weather inversions, which trap industrial pollution near the ground.

On the state level, PennEnvironment applauded Pennsylvania’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. RGGI is a bipartisan multi-state program that addresses carbon pollution by setting a cap on carbon emissions from power plants, which is lowered each year.

The report also calls for bigger moves like electrifying every sector of the economy, strengthening federal pollution and fuel economy standards, and dramatically increasing reliance on clean, renewable energy.

It suggests replacing heating, cooling and hot water systems with heat pump systems; hastening the transition to electric cars, trucks, SUVs and buses and improving mass transit.

“Frequent, reliable transit service can attract more riders. Providing people with more options for getting out of their cars will require policymakers to increase funding for walking, biking and transit (which could be done by shifting funds away from new road construction) and supporting development patterns that allow people to travel easily without a car,” the report reads.

PennEnvironment is calling on state and federal officials to act quickly to address air pollution, warning of the looming threat climate change poses to make matters worse.

“Our future can truly be better and healthier if we clean up our air,” Perfetti said. “Zeroing out pollution from all aspects of our lives will protect our lungs and our climate at the same time.”

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