Q: What is the Breathe Project?
A: The Breathe Project is a coalition of residents, businesses, government and many other groups throughout the region working together to clean our air for healthier communities and a stronger economy.
Q: When did the Breathe Project launch and who are your coalition members?
A: The Heinz Endowments launched The Breathe Project in the fall of 2011. Our coalition has grown to more than 150 groups, 1,500 individuals and nearly 20,000 online followers. Members include PNC Financial Services Group, Carnegie Mellon University, EQT, West Penn Allegheny Health System, City of Pittsburgh, Citizen’s for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture), United States Steel Corp. and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, to name a few. For the first time, CEOs of major corporations are standing side by side with public health experts, environmental advocates and elected officials, all joining together to improve our air for our health, economy and way of life. Click here for a full list of our coalition members.
Q: What is the Breathe Project doing to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania?
A: Despite improvements over the past few decades, our region’s air still ranks among the dirtiest in the nation, contributing to higher rates of heart and lung disease and other serious health problems and holding back our economic growth. The Breathe Project first kicked off a multimedia campaign to raise awareness of the region’s air quality challenges and to engage the community in finding ways to reduce our dangerous levels of pollution. Now, a broad-based leadership group is working to encourage individual and corporate actions, commissioning research and setting goals that will help Pittsburgh rise from the ranks of the nation’s worst to the best when it comes to air quality—and truly become a most livable city.
Q: How are your coalition members taking action for clean air?
A: Already, our organizational coalition members are succeeding. For instance, Pittsburgh Public Schools has worked to reduce harmful emissions from school buses that provide transportation to district students. PNC Bank has become a worldwide leader in green construction. U.S. Steel Corp. is investing $1 billion in pollution-reducing improvements at its coke plant in Allegheny County. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy regularly organizes tree plantings to boost the number of pollutant-absorbing trees in our region. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates have implemented a host of energy conservation measures at PNC Park. Find out more about the actions our coalition members are taking to help improve our air quality.
Q: Why do you encourage individuals to take actions for cleaner air, when a single person’s contribution to pollution is so much smaller than that of industrial and other sources?
A: Anyone who rides in a car, turns on the A/C, charges a cell phone or takes a warm shower uses energy, which typically means the combustion of fossils fuels that generates air pollution. In other words, we are all part of creating air pollution in our region—and we all need to be part of the solution. The Breathe Project encourages individuals, as well as large pollution sources, to do their part by making smarter transportation choices and increasing energy efficiency at home and in the workplace. Click here for ways to help.
Q: Pittsburgh’s skies seem clean now compared to decades ago. Why are you saying we still have air pollution?
A: Air quality has improved in recent decades throughout the United States (including in Pittsburgh), but southwestern Pennsylvania is falling behind other regions when it comes to cleaning our air. While Pittsburgh is no longer the “Smoky City” with dark skies at noon, air pollution levels in our region are still high enough to harm our health. Air pollutants today are less visible to the naked eye, so they can seem deceptively unthreatening. But even if you can’t easily see air pollution all of the time, it’s still there—and it’s still a dangerous health risk.
Q: What are the main air pollutants of concern today in southwestern Pennsylvania?
A: The main air pollutants of concern in this region fall into three categories: 1) ground-level ozone, or smog; 2) particle pollution, or soot; and 3) air toxics.
Q: I thought we needed an ozone layer to protect us from the sun—why are you calling ozone a pollutant?
A: You are right—ozone far from the Earth’s surface in the stratosphere protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. But at the ground level, where we breathe, it creates problems. Ozone, or smog, is a powerful gas formed when oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds react chemically in the presence of heat and sunlight; that’s why ozone levels tend to be highest during the warmer months. The precursors to ozone are emitted by sources such as power plants, coke- and steel-making facilities, other industrial processes, refineries and chemical plants and cars, trucks, buses and construction equipment.
Q: What is particle pollution?
A: Particle pollution, or soot, occurs year-round. It is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. Fine particles are a subset of this group, the smallest of which measure 2.5 microns or less in diameter (1/30th the width of a human hair)—known as PM2.5. Fine particulate matter is especially dangerous because the microscopic particles can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Toxic gases can also “hitchhike” into the body on fine particles, bypassing the defenses of our upper respiratory system. Some particle pollution is emitted directly; other particle pollution forms when precursors—such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides and ammonia—combine in the atmosphere. Sources of direct particle pollution or its precursors include power plants, coke- and steel-making facilities, other industrial facilities, residential wood burning and cars, trucks, buses and construction equipment.
Q: What are air toxics?
A: Air toxics are hazardous air pollutants that have a serious negative impact on human health like causing cancer, reproductive effects or birth defects. Examples include benzene (found in gasoline), perchloroethylene (emitted by some dry cleaners) and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic (coal-fired power plants are a major source of certain heavy metals).
Q: How do we know how much pollution is in the air?
A: The federal Clean Air Act requires states to monitor levels of six “criteria” pollutants deemed harmful to human health and the environment, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone and particulate matter. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for monitoring the air in most of the state. The Allegheny County Health Department Air Quality Program oversees monitoring in Allegheny County. We analyze our air quality primarily by tracking data from air quality monitors, which assess areas background air quality levels, as well as the air quality in areas where there may be a problem and areas that already have problems (often those areas near large emissions sources and in major population centers). While air quality monitors are helpful tools in analyzing air pollution levels, limited numbers of monitors exist, and for some pollutants, there are very few monitors at all.
Q: What are the health effects of air pollution?
A: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains a long list of serious health problems caused by or aggravated by air pollutants. This list includes cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) diseases, cancer, diseases of the nervous system (which can cause brain damage), asthma, birth effects—even eye irritation and the common cold. Air pollution can also lead to premature death, the ultimate health problem. Researchers have studied the number of premature deaths and the rates of other health problems in the Pittsburgh region caused by, or associated with, air pollution. You can read more here.
Q: Who is most at risk from the health effects of air pollution?
A: It is often said that the elderly, people with heart and lung disease and children are the populations most at risk from the harmful effects of air pollution. That is true, but “higher risk” groups also include people who work, play or exercise outdoors—not what you might normally consider “risky” activities! There is emerging evidence that people with diabetes, those living in poverty, the fetus, the obese and people with certain genetic factors may also be at increased risk from air pollution.
Source: The Health Impacts of Pittsburgh Air Quality: A Review of the Scientific Literature, 1970-2013, R.H. White Consultants, LLC, 2013.
Q: How does Pittsburgh’s air quality compare to other U.S. cities?
A: Despite marked improvement in air quality in recent decades, our region is still in the danger zone for a range of pollutants, and has fallen behind most other areas of the country. It also has not been improving at a rate that is keeping pace with federal clean-air standards and regulations, which are becoming tighter as researchers learn more about the toll air pollution takes on our health. The cleanest monitored areas across the Pittsburgh region have slid further behind, with six out of 10 of the air quality monitors measuring annual particle pollution in the Pittsburgh region ranking in the worst 10 percent of the U.S. for national averages from 2000-2011. Even the cleanest measured air quality in the area ranked nationwide in the worst 33 percent for fine particle pollution daily and annual averages.
Source: Clean Air Task Force, 2013.
In other indicators:
= A recent Natural Resources Defense Council study ranks Pennsylvania #3 in the “Toxic 20 States” based on toxic air pollution emitted from power plants.
= The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America named Pittsburgh the #16 Worst Asthma Capital for 2013.
= The 2013 State of the Air report by the American Lung Association ranks the Pittsburgh area #8 among U.S cities for high levels of fine particle pollution and #24 for ozone. The only areas of the U.S. that ranked worse for fine particle pollution are the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles area, both in California, as well as Salt Lake City.
= Pittsburgh just missed the top 10 in the Bloomberg Businessweek rankings of America’s 50 Best Cities in 2012, with air quality cited as a problem.
= Data from the 2005 EPA National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) indicate that Allegheny County ranks in the top two percent in overall U.S. air pollution-related cancer risk and in the top two-tenths of one percent with respect to cancer risk from power plants and other large industrial sources.
Q: Are current levels of air pollution in the Pittsburgh region really harmful to human health?
A: Yes. The Pittsburgh region still fails to meet federal health-protective standards for fine particle pollution and ozone. Many recent studies indicate that exposure to air pollutants at or below levels measured in Pittsburgh today can be dangerous and deadly.
Source: The Health Impacts of Pittsburgh Air Quality: A Review of the Scientific Literature, 1970-2013, R.H. White Consultants, LLC, 2013.
Q: How does our poor air quality impact our economy?
A: Clean air plays an important role in our region’s economic growth and development—and makes good business sense. Poor air quality impacts the health and productivity of our workforce, leading to increased health care costs and loss of work days. It also harms the health of our children, whose parents must then stay home from work when their kids are sick. Having poor air quality also hinders corporate recruitment efforts, places federal highway funding at risks and potentially subjects Pittsburgh-area businesses to increased regulatory burdens. Numerous studies have shown that clean air and strong economic growth go hand in hand; for instance, a 2011 Ceres report found that investments driven by federal air quality regulations will create nearly 1.5 million jobs nationwide in pollution-control industries over the next five years, including hundreds in Pennsylvania. Investing in locally produced renewable energy like wind and solar power also creates jobs and helps protect businesses against rising energy costs.
Q: Isn’t the problem confined to one part of our region?
A: No, that’s a story you hear a lot, but it’s definitely not the case. Data from more than half of the PM2.5 monitors in the region rank in the worst 10 percent of monitors across the U.S. for annual averages. Sometimes you hear that our local air quality problems really are just limited to the Liberty/Clairton area in the Mon Valley. But even if measurements from the monitor in that area are excluded, Pittsburgh still falls among the worst-polluted cities in the country.
Q: What are the federal air quality standards mandated by the Clean Air Act?
A: The annual standard for PM2.5 was tightened in 2012 to a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, based on the 3-year average of annual mean PM2.5 concentrations. It is designed to protect the public from long-term exposure to particle pollution. The 24-hour standard for PM2.5 was established in 2006 at 35 micrograms per cubic meter, determined by the 3-year average of the annual 98th percentile concentrations. It is meant to protect against short-term exposure. Ozone levels aren’t supposed to exceed 75 parts per billion (ppb) in an eight-hour period, as measured by the annual fourth-highest daily maximum eight-hour concentration averaged over three years. This standard has been under review by the EPA for some time and likely will be tightened in the next couple of years.
Q: Is our region in compliance with these federal standards?
A: No, the “Pittsburgh-Beaver Valley” area, which includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, exceeds EPA limits for ozone, placing it on a “nonattainment” list for that pollutant. The Pittsburgh region also contains two areas that are designated by EPA as not meeting air quality standards for PM2.5. The larger “Pittsburgh-Beaver Valley” area includes all or part of eight counties. The smaller “Liberty-Clairton” area consists of five small Allegheny County municipalities near several industrial plants, including the City of Clairton and Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport and Lincoln boroughs.
Q: I thought most of our pollution blew in from Ohio and other neighboring states upwind. Is that true?
A: No, you hear that a lot, too. It’s tempting to want to say someone else causes our air pollution problem, but that simply isn’t the case. The Clean Air Task Force has calculated that Pennsylvania sources may account for one-half to two-thirds of the PM2.5 monitored in the Pittsburgh region on average. The natural gas boom in Pennsylvania also raises new concerns about the risk to air quality presented by widespread drilling and processing. That’s bad news because we are making a lot of air pollution. But it’s also good news because it means we have the power to improve our own air quality.
Source: Fine Particulate Matter and Ozone Air Quality in Western Pennsylvania in the 2000s, Clean Air Task Force, 2011.
Q: Where does our local particle pollution come from?
A: The main sources of fine particulate matter emitted in a 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania are large coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles. Specifically, 65 percent of the primary particulate matter in this region results from electrical generation, with three-quarters of this coming from the Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station, Keystone Power Plant and Homer City Plant. No other single source contributes more than 10 percent of the total. In Allegheny County alone, there is a more diverse composition of primary particulate matter sources. The largest aggregated source (22 percent of total emissions) is industrial processing including coke battery production, steel mills, metal processing and chemical manufacturing. The second most common source is residential fuel consumption for heating; wood burning (e.g., fireplaces, wood stoves) contributes the vast majority of this source. Mobile sources (largely diesel traffic) contribute up to 30 percent of particulate matter emissions in the county.
Source: Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Report: Particulate Matter, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, 2012.
Q: What are the local sources of ozone?
A: In Allegheny County, mobile vehicles are the primary source of ozone precursors; cars and trucks drive nearly 20 million miles on major roads in the county on a typical day. In nine surrounding counties, most ozone precursor emissions come from stationary sources where there is large-scale combustion, such as coal-fired power plants, steel mills, coke ovens and other large industrial facilities.
Source: Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis (PRETA) Report: Ozone, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, 2011.
Q: What can my family and I do to limit our exposure to air pollution?
A: First, speak up for clean air, so that ultimately you won’t need to plan your life around air pollution. Second, until we achieve clean air throughout our region, it’s important to pay attention to the air quality forecast developed by EPA, called the Air Quality Index, or AQI. The AQI uses a color-coded scheme to describe how clean or polluted the air is and the associated health effects. The Breathe Project homepage—www.breatheproject.org—reports the daily AQI for the Pittsburgh area, as do most major newspaper and online weather reports. If possible, plan your outdoor activities on bad ozone days in the morning before ozone accumulates. People in at-risk groups should take care to reduce exposure to ozone and particle pollution by limiting/avoiding outdoor activity at “Code Orange” AQI levels or higher, and everyone should exercise caution at “Code Red” levels. Certain filters may also help reduce indoor exposure to particle pollution.
Q: What can I do to reduce particle pollution?
A: Conserving energy is the best way to clear the air of particle pollution. That’s because we burn fuel to make energy—usually coal or gas to generate electricity for homes and businesses, and gasoline and diesel to run cars and trucks. Specific ways to save electricity and make smarter transportation choices can be found here. Another important way to help reduce particle levels is to avoid burning wood, yard waste, garbage and other materials. Even though we’re used to engaging in these activities, extensive research has shown that they pollute our air and lead to serious health problems, especially in our own neighborhoods.
Q: What can I do to reduce ozone pollution?
A: On high ozone days, limit daytime driving by taking the bus, carpooling, biking or walking. Refuel after dark and reduce unnecessary idling. Postpone mowing your lawn with gas-powered mowers until evening. Or relax and mow another day—preferably using a manual or electric-powered mower. Turn off your lights and turn up the thermostat in the summer. Only wash clothes and dishes with full loads. Use latex rather than oil-based paints and solvents, and avoid using sprayers. There’s a nearly limitless list of easy things you can do in your daily life to reduce air pollution—and many of them save money, too. See other tips here.