May 2 2008
Misleading Headlines on Air Quality (by Harold D. Miller)
Well, there they go again. The American Lung Association (ALA), with more interest in sensational headlines than accurate research and information, has released its 2008 "State of the Air" report claiming that Pittsburgh is the "most polluted city" in the country for particle pollution (what is popularly called soot).
And the local and national news media dutifully made it front-page headlines, since what a "new study" says is often more important than what the truth really is.
The ALA's rankings are based on the unusually high readings at a single monitor in the Mon Valley near the Clairton Coke Works called the Liberty Monitor. If you want to see how unusual the Liberty Monitor is, go to the charts on the PittsburghToday website, where the maximum readings at every PM2.5 monitor in the region are reported. None of the news articles have bothered to report that the pollution readings at the Liberty Monitor are nearly double the readings at any other pollution monitor in the entire region, and so any ranking based on that monitor is not really representative of what most people in the region are breathing.
The Liberty monitor is in Liberty Borough, not in the City of Pittsburgh. Yet the ALA uses this monitor to rank "Pittsburgh" as the dirtiest "city" in the country. (ALA has a separate ranking for counties, where Allegheny County ranks #1, so it could easily have distinguished the City if it wanted to.) As you can see in the chart on PittsburghToday.org, the highest monitor in the City of Pittsburgh has pollution levels only half as high as the Liberty Monitor.
In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has officially said that the pollution measured at the Liberty Monitor isn't related to the air quality that people in Pittsburgh or the rest of the region are breathing. The area surrounding the Liberty Monitor and the monitor in North Braddock were designated by EPA in 2006 as a different air quality attainment region than the rest of the Pittsburgh Region. That means that if ALA wants to use the air quality readings at the Liberty Monitor to rank something as #1 in the country, it should rank the Mon Valley as #1, not "Pittsburgh."
Now, the fact that the Pittsburgh Region doesn't really have the worst air quality in the country doesn't mean that it doesn't have a problem. In fact, as documented on PittsburghToday, the average level of PM2.5 (soot) pollution in our region is higher than most comparable regions. So we do have a serious air quality problem in our region, and it's not just in the Mon Valley.
But then the obvious question is: what's causing it? And that's where the ALA and our local media again fail to give the really important information: the high levels of soot outside of the Mon Valley are not being caused by pollution sources in the region, but by sources in upwind states. Studies done by Carnegie Mellon show that up to 80% of the particulate matter pollution in southwestern Pennsylvania is caused by pollution sources in states to the west and south, not by sources in southwestern Pennsylvania. Even if we were to shut down every power plant in our region, idled every car, etc., we would still have high levels of soot in the air here. In fact, the charts on PittsburghToday.org show that pollution levels upwind in Ohio and West Virginia are as high or higher than in southwestern PA.
So when the ALA ranks Pittsburgh as having high pollution, but gives low rankings to the regions that are causing the pollution, it's blaming the victim. And while the ALA may think that its sensationalistic reporting will help, blaming downwind regions like our may actually make it harder to insure that the multi-state pollution controls that are essential for pollution reduction are implemented and enforced.