Outdoor Air Pollution
In the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air Report (http://www.stateoftheair.org/), Pittsburgh was ranked as the third worst metropolitan area for the amount of short term fine particle (PM2.5) pollution. That was a slight improvement from the previous two years, in which Pittsburgh was ranked number one. Through the years Pittsburgh has made great strides toward decreasing the pollution in our region. From being referred to as “Smokey Pittsburgh” in the 1970s where the skies were darkened by the smoke of the steel mills to today where the skies are clearer and the air fresher. But there is still much work to be done before we can claim truly healthy air. With the loss of many steel mills, the region’s air has improved; however, that was not the only cause of our pollution. Particulate pollution consists of soot, ash, dust and aerosols and can be generated from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities like coke-making, construction activities, burning of diesel fuel, road dust, and brake wear on vehicles. This pollution has lasting affects on our health including increased rates in asthma, heart attacks, strokes, various cancers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
There are two types of ozone; ground-level ozone and ozone found in the atmosphere. Ozone in the atmosphere is healthy ozone that helps protect life from damaging ultraviolet rays. Ground-level ozone on the other hand, can become very unhealthy, very quickly.
As indicated on EPA’s website (www.epa.gov),“ ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms. It is not usually emitted directly into the air, but at ground-level is created by a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight…In the earth's lower atmosphere, ground-level ozone is considered "bad." Motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents as well as natural sources emit NOx and VOC that help form ozone... Sunlight and hot weather cause ground-level ozone to form in harmful concentrations in the air. Many urban areas tend to have high levels of "bad" ozone, but even rural areas are also subject to increased ozone levels because wind carries ozone and pollutants that form it hundreds of miles away from their original sources.”
Ground-level ozone can be a lung irritant, especially in children, older adults and people with asthma, which may help explain the abundance of asthmatics in the region. Ozone Action Days are not uncommon in this region, especially during the summer months. Smog is a byproduct of ozone, and is a common reminder to Pittsburghers about air pollution. In order to improve our air quality, simple steps can be taken to reduce the amount of Ozone Action Days.
Toxic Air Pollution
Mercury, benzene, dioxin, toluene and others are all considered air toxins. Air toxins, also known as hazardous air pollutants, are those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects, birth defects or adverse environmental effects.
Mercury, for instance, is emitted into the air via coal-fired power plants. This is a particular concern for Pennsylvania residents, as PA contains five of the top 25 most polluting power plants in the country. In the Pittsburgh region, there are 16 coal-fired power plants, and many of these have received notices of violation from the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as violations from the PA Department of Environmental Protection including smokestack emissions violations. Mercury is a heavy metal and once in the air, it settles into the soil and waterways, moving up the food chain and causing a buildup in organisms. For more information on how it affects aquatic life, check out the water section of our website.
What You Can Do to improve air quality in Pittsburgh:
- Carpool, take public transit, bike, drive a more environmentally-friendly vehicle, or just walk
- Don’t smoke
- Use less power, when you’re done in a room, turn out the light.
- Plant a tree or garden
- Use less water (turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth)
- Go electric instead of gas
- Go to www.airnow.gov to see the U.S Air Quality Summary and www.enviroflash.info to get current air quality ratings
- Review our Science and Advocacy section of the web to learn more about how you can support local legislation that would reduce diesel emissions by requiring that all construction vehicles used at publicly-funded development projects are equipped with best available diesel control technology.
- Click here to read Women for a Healthy Environment's Letter to the Editor in response to the Post-Gazette's "Mapping Mortality" series on air pollution in southwestern PA.
- Learn more about clean diesel technology: http://www.dieselforum.org/meet-clean-diesel
- EPA Care For Your Air http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/careforyourair.pdf