Lung association says Pittsburgh's soot still worst in U.S.

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Pittsburgh is still (cough, cough) No. 1!

That's nothing to cheer about, according to the American Lung Association.

The group ranks the Pittsburgh metropolitan area worst in the nation for daily fine particle soot pollution for the second year in a row.

Pittsburgh is second worst in the nation for year-round particle pollution behind only Los Angeles, which ranks second for daily particle pollution and first for ozone pollution.

And, despite measurable improvements in southwestern Pennsylvania's air quality, it gets worse. Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties are among six counties in the state and 37 in the nation to fail all three air pollution measures used by the Lung Association's 10th Annual "State of the Air" report released today.

The report assesses measurements of short-term fine particle pollution, year-round particle pollution and ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog, for a three-year period, 2005-2007.

According to the Lung Association, science indicates that the air quality in counties earning failing grades is dirty enough to endanger lives.

"This report should be a wake-up call, that we can no longer consider air pollution a nuisance but rather a major threat to health right here in Pennsylvania," said John Rutkowski, Lung Association board chair.

The association's national report card on unhealthy air pollution levels estimates that six out of seven Pennsylvanians, or nearly 10.8 million, live in metropolitan areas or counties that received failing grades. That total includes 2.4 million children, 1.6 million seniors, 220,000 children and 780,000 adults with asthma, 3.2 million with cardiovascular disease, 290,000 with chronic bronchitis and 150,000 with emphysema.

A silver lining in the soot cloud, according to the report, is that last year 11 of the 25 metropolitan areas most polluted by short-term fine particles, including Pittsburgh, experienced fewer days when soot reached unhealthy levels.

Like last year, when the Pittsburgh metropolitan region first wrested leadership for short-term particle pollution from longtime champ Los Angeles, local government, business and tourism officials focused on local air quality improvements, and complained about the monitoring data and grading system used by the Lung Association.

In something of a pre-emptive strike, Dennis Yablonsky, chief executive officer of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, sent a letter last Friday to the organization's Regional Investors Council stating that the Lung Association's ranking "distorts our region's air quality reality" and warning them that the report may generate "negative headlines."

In that letter, Mr. Yablonsky said the Lung Association ranking is based on readings from monitors in the industrial Liberty-Clairton area of the Mon Valley that are "non-representative" of regional air quality. "The reality is we are moving in the right direction on all national air quality standards."

Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole confirmed that even at the Liberty monitor, the trend for airborne particles is moving steadily downward, from 69 micrograms per cubic meter in 2005 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter last year. The federal health standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

But Joseph Osborne, legal director for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, said the data used in the Lung Association report shows that high levels of particle pollution are a region-wide problem with four of eight county particle monitors exceeding the federal health standard for the three years covered by the report.

Charles McPhedran, senior attorney for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a state-wide environmental organization, said that while the bulk of Western Pennsylvania's soot pollution blows in from coal-fired power plants located to the west in the Ohio River Valley, the county could do more by issuing tough permits for local, individual pollution sources.

"Pittsburgh is doing better," he said, "but if it's No. 1 on that national list it still has some more work to do."

Other findings include:

• Pittsburgh is not in the top 25 for ozone smog pollution, but Philadelphia ranks 16th.

• Thirteen of 17 Pennsylvania counties graded for year-round particle pollution recorded their best pollution levels since the State of the Air started covering particles in 2004.

• The Fargo, N.D.-Wahpeton, Minn., area is the nation's cleanest city, appearing on all three cleanest lists for 24-hour and annual particle pollution and ozone.

For more information on the report's findings, including cleanest and dirtiest cities and air quality in different states and individual zip codes, go to www.stateoftheair.org.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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