Researcher Maps Pittsburgh's Worst Air Pollution

Feb 10, 2015

Map of the worst (in red) air pollution communities in Allegheny County
Credit Courtesy: Albert Presto

Pittsburgh is the 6th most offensive city in the country in terms of air pollution, according to a 2014 report from the American Lung Association.

However, Carnegie Mellon University professor Albert Presto wanted to look further into Pittsburgh’s air quality. Using mobile laboratories, including a van he called the “Breathemobile,” Presto drove throughout Allegheny County collecting pollution data. Presto turned this data into a series of color-coded maps that reveal where pollutants are found in the county.

Presto will present these maps in a public forum at 7 p.m. Wednesday night in the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh.

Presto said Pittsburgh air quality is marked by high levels of particulate matter that violate Environmental Protection Agency standards. Particulate matter is made up of small solid or liquid specks suspended in the air. Presto said this includes the puff of black smoke that large trucks emit and the smog that can make far-away hillsides or buildings look fuzzy.

Presto’s maps show heavy pollution concentrations in downtown, Oakland and the Monongahela River Valley, among other regions—“pretty much the places you would expect,” said Presto.

Industrial facilities such as the Clairton Coke Works emit large amounts of pollution in Allegheny County, said Presto, which can affect communities miles away. Pittsburgh’s river valleys augment the problem, Presto explained, because “the emissions can get trapped down there.”

Stephen Riccardi from the PennEnvironment Research Center said Pittsburgh does not have to choose between clean air and industry — industry just has to clean up its act.

“There’s a lot of it that’s just asking the facilities to be more careful in how they are going about their processes,” said Riccardi.

Riccardi pointed out that while Pittsburgh has made big improvements in air quality since its soot-ridden days of the last century, there is still an ongoing problem.

“With air pollution, ‘better’ is hardly good enough,” Riccardi said, pointing out that particulate matter aggravates asthma.

Dr. Deborah Gentile from Allegheny General Hospital will be present at Wednesday’s forum to explain how poor air quality can hurt public health. According to the World Health Organization, particulate matter can cause respiratory and heart problems. It has been linked to lung cancer and increased hospitalizations, especially among children and the elderly.

Correction 3/2/15: In an earlier post we mistakenly called the mobile lab the "Breathmobile".