When rankings of air quality are published, Pittsburghers expect that their town will get another round of bad publicity, fighting it out with some place in California typically for the very worst air in the USA. With that painful, recent history in mind, the new study from Environment America ranking Pittsburgh as the 29th in the list of smoggy air is progress, though not exactly great news. See the Danger in The Air Report at http://www.environmentamerica.org/.
The study uses for its rankings EPA Air Quality Index data for 2010, counting the number of days that an area had air bad enough to trigger a Code Orange, Code Red, or Code Purple Air Alerts warning the air is unhealthy to breathe.
While being 29th is much better than being number 1 in this ranking, it does not mean that Pittsburgh's air is healthy to breathe everyday. Not by a long shot. Pittsburgh in 2010 had 13 Code Orange days and 1 Code Red day. On a Code Orange day, children, the elderly, those with respiratory conditions are advised to minimize going outdoors and to avoid exercise or exertion. On a Code Red day, everyone is warned to avoid breathing outdoor air.
These health warnings are vital to follow as smoggy air sickens and kills people.
And what is a Code Purple day? Horrible. Deadly.
What about the rest of Pennsylvania? How did it rank?
The worst air in Pennsylvania is in the Philadelphia area which ranked 8th among all areas. Philadelphia had 29 days when a Code Orange or higher alert was issued, including 3 Code Red days in 2010.
Reading, Lancaster, Harrisburg, York are just some of the other Pennsylvania areas where smoggy days threaten health.
There were 35 days when somewhere in Pennsylvania a health alert for dangerous air was issued during 2010.
As Environment America points out, the standard used to determine whether the air is so dirty as to require a Code Orange or higher alert was set in 2008 when the Bush Administration lowered the previous standard from 80ppm to 75ppm. By doing so, the EPA Administrator at the time refused to follow the EPA Science Advisory Board that recommended a level between 60ppm to 70ppm was needed to protect human health.
That controversy still is boiling with court cases filed suing EPA for not setting the standard within the recommended range and then President Obama's recent directive to the EPA that was in the process of lowering the standard to the recommended range to wait until 2013, the next time a 5-year review of the standard is due, to make any changes to it.
Bottom line the current health alerts use the Bush Administration 75ppm standard to warn the public.
Another bottom line is that the air is getting cleaner, with large drops in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide pollution in 2010 compared to 2008 (See recent posting for the extraordinary numbers). But more clean up is needed to make sure the air is healthy to breathe every day.