UPDATE: A message from Allegheny County: The Air Quality dashboard on the department’s website has been temporarily removed due to technical issues resulting in data being misreported. The air quality monitors are reporting correctly and air program staff are continuing to monitor data.
To help the public understand the constant fluctuations in local air pollution, the Allegheny County Health Department is making the most up-to-date data public on a revamped, user-friendly air quality dashboard.
“I firmly believe in transparency and ensuring that data be presented in ways that are easy to interpret and understand,” says Allegheny County Health Department Director Debra Bogen. “We all want and deserve clean air.”
There are two types of air monitors in the county, explains Jim Kelly, deputy director of the Health Department’s Bureau of Environmental Health. The first involves a filter that’s collected every 24 hours and brought to a lab to measure compliance. The second is a type of electronic monitor that’s a little less accurate, but still “very, very good.”
The four electronic monitors in the region are the ones tracked on the dashboard. Viewers can choose which pollutant to track: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone or sulfur dioxide (SO2).
“That gives you hourly data, even (up-to-the) minute data that we can upload to our website,” says Kelly. “So every hour, the monitors that are demonstrated by the dashboard are collecting this data. Now, there’s usually about a two-hour or slightly more than two-hour delay before you see the data on the website. But it is done automatically.”
Users can also see the highest, most recent Air Quality Index (AQI). It was 54 at 9 a.m. on Tuesday at the Liberty and Parkway East monitors. That’s considered a “moderate” level of pollution, which is 51 and above.
Today (Wednesday, April 21), the highest recorded AQI was 33, recorded at 6 a.m. in Lawrenceville, which is still in the “good” range.
There’s also a graph to track air quality over time, most days heavily clustered between good and moderate, with a few instances of the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” level, such as a reading of 115 AQI at the Avalon monitor on November 8.
This information is particularly valuable for those with respiratory issues. High concentrations of PM2.5 can exacerbate certain respiratory problems, so people can avoid being outside when levels are elevated.
The dashboard launch coincides with the release of the American Lung Association (ALA)’s 2021 State of the Air report, which ranked the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area the ninth-worst in year-round particle pollution among American metro areas. The area ranked 16th-worst for 24-hour particle pollution and 35th-worst for high ozone days.
There has been progress: This year, for the first time, Allegheny County met federal air quality standards at all eight of its regional monitors. But environmental watchdog group PennEnvironment cited the ALA report as reason to avoid complacency about air quality.
“A few weeks ago, our leaders celebrated the region’s air quality for being on pace to comply with federal pollution limits for the first time,” says PennEnvironment Clean Air Advocate Zachary Barber, in an emailed statement. “Yet in the time since, we’ve racked up more than a half-dozen violations on limits for soot and foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide pollution. It’s clear that we aren’t doing enough.”
In 2018, PennEnvironment updated a list of Allegheny County’s “Toxic Ten” — the polluters providing the most persistent problems for air quality in the region. They include the McConway & Torley Foundry in Lawrenceville and the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock. A new Toxic Ten will be reported next month, says Barber.
“Swift action is needed to clean up the industrial polluters driving these toxic emissions,” notes Barber. “It’s time to close dangerous loopholes that have allowed U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works to pollute at high, unsafe levels and to set strict, health-based emissions limits for all of the Toxic Ten.”
The ALA ranking comes from the Liberty air monitor, which is across from the Clairton Coke Works, the largest coke facility (part of the steelmaking process) in North America. It supersedes all of the other air monitors.
The county’s other monitors — all of which show data that meet World Health Organization standards — are not included, notes Kelly.
“We could probably easily say that the Clairton Coke Works is the most-inspected industrial facility in the country,” says Kelly. “And then there are federal contractors — inspectors that are there on various times during the day and during the evening, some evenings and weekends.”
Kelly notes that the ALA does great work, but, “it doesn’t show our recent progress. They use data from 2017-18-19,” he says.
One area of agreement is that progress still needs to be made in improving Allegheny County’s air.
“This report underscored something we already knew: Lax federal clean air standards are exposing millions of Americans, and many here in the Pittsburgh region, to dangerous levels of air pollution,” says Barber, in an emailed statement. “The Biden administration should not repeat the Trump administration’s dangerous inaction and must take quick action to bring these standards in line with the recommendations of health experts.”