State of the Air: Pittsburgh Still Not Breathing Easy

  • The American Lung Association says cleaner diesel engines in trucks and buses have helped clean up some air pollution. Photo: Julie Grant

April 30, 2015
With reporting by Julie Grant

This week the American Lung Association came out with their annual State of the Air Report. It ranks cities and grades counties across the country for air pollution.

The Pittsburgh metro area—the tri-state, 12 county region—made the top 25 on all three of the worst air lists—for ozone—that’s smog—for year-round particle pollution, and for short-term small particle pollution. It’s one of only 7 metro areas to share that dubious distinction.

Kevin Stewart, Director of Environmental Health for the American Lung Association of the Mid Atlantic, says people shouldn’t worry too much about their city’s ranking.

"Someone has got to be first, and someone’s got to be last. What’s more important is whether the area’s air quality meets national standards."

Though the Pittsburgh metro region doesn’t meet the national standard overall, the report shows individual counties are making strides. Three counties, including Westmoreland,  improved their scores from failing to passing in long-term particle pollution, and grades for ground level ozone have improved somewhat, too. Hancock County in West Virginia, part of the Pittsburgh metro area, was graded A, the cleanest, for fine particles.

Stewart says cleaner diesel engines in trucks and buses have helped. He also expects new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up coal fired power plants will improve air quality.

"Pennsylvania’s the state that’s going to gain the most from a clean power plan because that will help make sure that we’re dealing with a whole broad spectrum of sources and not just areas right where the pollution is highest."

Stewart says the American Lung Association creates the air quality rankings because it wants people to be aware of the health risks associated with high pollution.

So, a little primer: Ozone pollution is created when emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks react with sunlight and create smog. Particle pollution is made up of the tiny particles from those emissions, that we breath in.

Breathing in diesel fumes is bad for your health, especially if you a kid.  Efforts to cut down on unhealthy fumes from school buses are starting to make a difference. The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant went to a Pittsburgh area school with
Rachel Filippini of GASP, the Group Against Smog and Pollution.

School was just about to let out for the day, and the buses were parked along the street by a school building. Some of them are running the engine.

Filippini says buses that idle are emitting diesel fumes.

“And those are very unhealthy to be breathing in. They’re a known carcinogen..heart attacks. They’re just bad all around.”

Pennsylvania has a law against idling for more than 5 minutes in an hour. Meanwhile, the federal government has been trying to reduce tailpipe fumes.

“While lots of people might think of a diesel bus being something that emits big clouds of black smoke, the regulations have said that that can’t be the case anymore,” says Albert Presto.

He studies air pollution at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He says 2007 rules from the Environmental Protection Agency forced companies that own school buses to retrofit, or replace them with new vehicles with cleaner technology.

“When these technologies are working well, they can reduce over 90 percent of the particulate matter emissions from diesel vehicles,” he says.

Allegheny County health officials estimate about three quarters of the school buses here should have the new exhaust systems. But Presto says studies can’t detect a difference in air quality specifically tied to school buses.

Rachel Filippini at GASP says even cleaner school buses spew pollution when they’re idling. When her group monitored buses recently, she says more than one-quarter were idling, and they want better enforcement.