Pittsburgh's air was unsafe to breathe for 3 months in 2018
Flickr/Mark Dixon

Pittsburgh's air was unsafe to breathe for 3 months in 2018

"There's at least one day a week where just breathing the air in Pittsburgh while you're just going about your day puts your health at risk"

PITTSBURGH—The air in Pittsburgh was unsafe to breathe for three months in 2018, according to a new report from the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center.


The study, published today, looks at national air quality data from 2018 in both urban and rural regions. There were 90 days in which half or more air monitoring locations reported levels of particulate matter or ozone pollution above levels that pose "little to no risk" to human health according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Ozone and particulate matter pollution can trigger a host of respiratory and heart issues including heart attacks, asthma and COPD. Particulate matter pollution has also been linked to cancer, premature births and heightened risk of autism. The Pittsburgh region has higher than average rates of asthma and certain types of cancer linked to air pollution.

"Having 90 days of unhealthy air means there's at least one day a week where just breathing the air in Pittsburgh while you're just going about your day puts your health at risk," Zachary Barber, a Pittsburgh-based clean air advocate with PennEnvironment, told EHN. "That is completely unacceptable."

The greater Pittsburgh region also scored all F's on the American Lung Association's air quality report card for 2018, and the region had some of the stinkiest and most polluted air in the country at the end of 2019. Previous research has shown that traffic and industrial emissions are the region's largest sources of air pollution.

​Some modest regional improvement

Flickr/ctj71081

While having unsafe air for a quarter of the year poses serious threats to public health, this report does point to some improvements: The organization's last report on national air quality, which came out in 2018 and looked at 2016 data, found that Pittsburgh had 121 days of unsafe air—so the region had 31 days of cleaner air this time around.

In 2018, Pittsburgh had 39 days in which half or more monitoring locations reported elevated levels of ozone pollution and 72 days with elevated levels of particulate matter pollution, according to the report. In 2016, there were 46 days with elevated ozone pollution and 97 days with elevated particulate matter pollution.

"It's hard to draw an overarching trend from just two years of data on unhealthy air days," Barber said. "We do know that in general over the past several decades, the trend has been toward improvements in air quality, though it has often been a little slower in Pittsburgh than the rest of the country."

National numbers worsen

Air quality remains a problem in much of the U.S. According to the report, 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality in 2018, and another 157 million Americans saw at least 31 days—a month or more—of elevated ozone and/or particulate matter pollution, including Pittsburghers.

Nationally, air pollution actually got worse from 2016 to 2018 after seven years of steady improvement, and the United States saw 9,700 premature deaths as a result of air pollution in 2018, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

The PennEnvironment report also notes that levels of air pollution that meet current federal air quality standards can still be harmful to health, especially with prolonged exposure. Research shows increased numbers of premature deaths in people exposed to pollution at levels the EPA considers "good" or "moderate," and current federal standards are less stringent than those recommended by the World Health Organization.

"Just because we're seeing some improvement," Barber said, "that doesn't mean we can sit back and rest on our laurels. There's a lot of hard work that needs to be done to clean up the air in the region to protect our health, especially when it comes to curbing industrial pollution."

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less

Biden's climate law targets methane emissions with financial penalties

The Inflation Reduction Act introduces a significant methane fee to curb emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Naveena Sadasivam reports for Grist.

Keep reading...Show less
SCOTUS EPA cross-state pollution regs
Credit: Faux Toe/BigStock Photos ID: 1366970

Supreme Court scrutinizes EPA's anti-pollution strategy across states

The Supreme Court evaluates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's initiative to decrease emissions affecting neighboring states, aiming to mitigate smog-related health issues.

Anna Phillips and Ann E. Marimow report for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Los Angeles demonstrates the effectiveness of sponge city infrastructure

In the midst of unyielding downpours, Los Angeles' innovative "sponge" infrastructure successfully captured 8.6 billion gallons of water, providing enough resources to support more than 100,000 households for an entire year.

Matt Simon reports for WIRED.

Keep reading...Show less

UK company pioneers carbon-neutral cannabis cultivation

Glass Pharms, a UK-based firm, has achieved a milestone in producing the world's first carbon-neutral cannabis.

Damien Gayle reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

North Dakota's diverse environmental views revealed in statewide poll

A recent poll in North Dakota shows a wide range of opinions on climate change, carbon capture, and electric vehicles, reflecting the state's varied environmental perspectives.

Jeff Beach reports for North Dakota Monitor.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.