#GBites: Air Pollution

by Natalie Gentile, MD and Dan Goldstein

Steel City Breathin’

If you know me, you know that I am just a little bit proud to be a Pittsburgher... Despite my overwhelming pride, I, like most Pittsburgh residents, am aware of the city’s history of poor air quality. Each of us has either witnessed directly or heard stories of the thick smog that once engulfed our gorgeous city. Thankfully, enormous efforts have been taken to combat this issue and now Pittsburgh’s beautiful skyline shines without the presence of dark clouds of smoke. But just because we can no longer see the pollution does not mean that it does not exist.

In April of this year, the American Lung Association (ALA) put out their annual “State of the Air” report in which they review the air quality of major metropolitan areas and issue gradings. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County received failing marks across the board. The country received an ‘F’ for ground-level ozone (smog), an ‘F’ particle pollution over a 24-hour period and a failing grade for annual particle pollution. (1) In fact, Allegheny County was the only county outside of California to fail in all three of these categories. (2) In the ALA’s ranking of the metropolitan areas with the worst air quality, Pittsburgh ranked 7th for annual particle pollution, 10th for 24-hour particle pollution and 28th for ozone out of over 200 regions throughout the U.S. (1) Each of these three metrics have worsened since last year.

The emissions responsible for the fine particles and soot in the air come from stationary sources like power plants and manufacturing facilities as well as mobile sources like automobiles and boats. Coupled with high emissions, the region’s topography also plays a role in the severity of the pollution in the air. With certain weather conditions, Pittsburgh’s landscape of hills and valleys can have the effect of trapping polluted air near the ground. This phenomenon is called an inversion.

How air pollution can impact health

Air pollution poses threats to cardiovascular and respiratory health. Hospitalizations for diseases of the heart and lungs are common in our region and Pittsburghers are more likely to die of these diseases than the average American. (3) Those who live with a respiratory condition like asthma or COPD may experience an exacerbation of symptoms simply from breathing our air. (3) Additionally, a number of toxins found in Pittsburgh’s air have been identified as carcinogenic. (3)

Ways to stay healthy amid poor air

Despite our polluted air, there are a number of reasons to continue to call Pittsburgh home. Thankfully, there are some ways to mitigate the risks posed by airborne pollutants.

Simply by knowing when the air quality is poor in your community, you can structure your day around periods of heavy pollution. Get the Smell PGH app. This air quality tracking platform complies crowdsourced air quality complaints with measured data from the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD). Using the app, people throughout the Pittsburgh region are able to report malodors, their severity and location. Complaints appear in an interactive map format which can be a useful tool in assessing the current state of the air in different neighborhoods. Smell PGH is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The Air Quality Index (AQI) and a forecast of tomorrow’s air can also be accessed at AirNow.gov.

Referring to the AQI and SmellPGH allows a person to plan their daily life around the quality of the air. For example, if you are looking forward to a Saturday hike in Frick Park, check the status of the air in that area before you go, and if it looks bleak, just hold out for a few hours and wait for the air to improve. As a general rule of thumb, if the air smells bad, it is likely bad for you.

Those who exercise outdoors should be aware that they are at an increased risk. Spending time running and cycling outdoors increases a person’s time spent in a polluted environment. The strenuous nature of exercise also requires more frequent and deeper inhalations, increasing the amount of particulate entering the lungs. But there is good news for those who choose to continue to exercise outdoors despite the city’s air pollution. Emission levels on side streets can be as much as four times less harmful than major roadways according to air quality activist and Pittsburgh local, Mark Dixon. Even adjusting your jogging or biking route by a couple of city blocks can drastically reduce the amount of time spent in polluted air. Obviously exercising is incredibly positive to health and this should not be a reason to abandon working out. 


Looking into current air quality and adjusting your schedule accordingly can help to reduce your exposure to toxic air. When exercising outside, choose routes that avoid major roadways. Changing your AC and furnace filters, cleaning and dusting regularly and keeping indoor plants can help to improve the air you breathe when you are at home. There are also a number of in-home air purifiers available on the market for those who are looking to make a greater difference. The final thing you can do to address air pollution is to voice your concerns to your local politician. 


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