Pittsburgh air quality fails the test

Claire Kleffman, North Campus Editor

The city of Pittsburgh has been ranked as the fourth highest city for number of air quality-related deaths, according to the American Thoracic Society and New York University’s Marron Institute for Urban Management. It has also reached above-average amounts of Asthma cases in the country. The 2017 study reports Pittsburgh had 232 deaths related to air pollution. While this study included the bordering counties, Allegheny County and Fayette County, this is highest death count outside of California.

“It is more ongoing evidence that we have a serious air quality problem,” Matthew Mehalik, director of the air-quality group Breathe Project, told the Pittsburgh Paper. “And people that pretend we don’t aren’t doing anyone any favors.” Mehalik says over half of Pittsburgh’s air pollution comes from three major companies: Clairton Coke Works, Edgar Thomson Steel Works, and the Irvin Plant. Cleanair.org states that the 2005 national Air Toxics Assessment report listed Clairton and nearby Glassport as having the third and fourth highest rates of cancer risk from air pollutants in the nation, respectively.

For Pittsburgh, the main concern is particle matter pollution, rather than ozone. 60 percent of Pittsburgh’s pollution is coming from industrial sources.
“We need strong enforcement, and we need the entities that are responsible to clean up their act,” says Mehalik. “As a public health issue, an environmental justice issues, and a future economic viability issue.”

This rise in particulate matter pollution has caused an increase in rates of asthma and lung cancer, decreased lung function in children, increased hospital admissions and premature death due to heart attacks and respiratory illness. The end of January marked Pittsburgh as having the lowest score of air quality in the entire nation. This is the second year in a row that Allegheny County has received the lowest score, siding California. Within the last year, out of the nation’s 25 most polluted cities, Pittsburgh was the only one east of the Mississippi.

In a press release, the Allegheny County Health Department acknowledged that temperature inversions will increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. During an inversion, the behavior of the atmosphere reverses, so that the air gets warmer with increased altitude and the cooler air remains on the surface. The warm air acts like a seal, trapping pollutants, like car and power plant emissions, which creates smog.

The Allegheny County Health Department is accepting air quality complaints through email, over the phone, or by mail.