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Downtown view. Photo by Brian Cohen

Good news. Allegheny County’s air quality met all federal standards for fine particulate matter for the first time since air quality monitoring began in 1999.

The downside is we can’t breathe any easier just yet.

In order for the region to claim a completely clean bill of air health—and meet federal air quality standards by the EPA’s 2020 deadline—the county must maintain federal standards for three straight years at all eight sites where readings are taken in Pittsburgh: Avalon, Clairton, North Braddock, Harrison, Lawrenceville, Liberty, North Park and South Fayette.

“It’s premature to celebrate,” says Joe Osborne of the Group Against Smog Pollution (GASP) of the first year readings. “We need to make sure this is not a fluke.”

For the first time in the region’s history, every air-monitoring site in the county, including the one in Liberty downwind from U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant, met federal standards for fine particulate pollution in 2013 which is a major milestone for the region.

“It marks a huge leap forward in our efforts to improve air quality,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, county health director in a statement issued by the county. “While our work is far from finished, we are proud to say that air quality in Allegheny County is the best it’s been since the industrial revolution.”

But Allegheny County is still dealing with several serious pollutants. The region is in violation of air quality standards for ozone and sulfur dioxide and continues to experience air quality action days for particulate matter, says Osborne.

The Liberty air-monitoring site has historically had the highest pollution levels in the county and was the only location until now that wasn’t meeting federal standards until last year.

The EPA annual standard for fine particulate matter annually is PM2.5 or 12 micrograms per cubic meters, a figure that denotes the total weight of the fine particles captured by the monitors that can’t be exceeded on an annual basis. Fine particles encompass everything from dust to dirt and soot and liquid droplets.

The standard for particulate matter is based on the theory that there is a threshold effect that can be tolerated by people without any noticeable negative impact, says Osborne.

The county monitors other types of pollution as well. The Liberty site has yet to reach the federal standards for sulfur dioxide levels and the county is not yet within standard levels for ozone measurement.

Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared...