It’s the ranking Pittsburgh doesn’t want and can’t seem to shake: bad air quality.

The American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report ranks the Pittsburgh metro area as eighth worst in the country for year-round particle pollution that can affect the lungs and heart. And the Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton region remains the only metropolitan region east of the Mississippi River to place in the top 25 most polluted cities.

“It’s not really surprising. I think our ranking is quite similar to last year, and overall we’re still receiving a letter grade of F in both ozone and fine particulates,” says Rachel Filippini, executive director of GASP, the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “Even though we may have made some improvement, when you’re still failing, you’re still failing.”

Allegheny County has received an F grade for all three measures of air pollution — annual particle, 24-hour particle, and annual ozone — for at least five years. The county’s air quality ranks 16th worst in the country.

If there is good news in the report, it’s that Pittsburgh is among three of the most polluted cities that had fewer unhealthy air days, on average, than in the 2019 report (Seattle and Missoula, Mont., are the other two). The region’s ranking also improved slightly, from seventh-worst the year prior.

The 2020 report uses data from 2016 to 2018, a year with favorable meteorological conditions that might explain at least some of the improvements. The report doesn’t reflect any lessening of pollution because of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

The report finds the region’s air is “not good” two-thirds of the time, says Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project. Data from the Liberty (near Clairton Coke Works), Braddock and Parkway (in Wilkinsburg near the Parkway East; when the wind blows from the southeast, this monitor also picks up pollutants from the Clairton Coke Works) monitors show measurements worse than 95 percent of all monitors in the U.S., he says.

The recent emphasis on public health and respiratory diseases may have people paying more attention to unhealthy air, says Filippini.

“In light of COVID-19, they’re giving attention to it, but even before then we were seeing more people interested in these issues over the last couple years, and recognizing that they have a voice and they need to push their legislators to do more about this,” she says.

GASP and other environmental and public health advocates have pushed the region’s leaders to pressure companies that repeatedly violate their air permits. The county Health Department has committed to revising its coke oven regulations and putting in place a plan to curtail pollution from industry during strong inversion days, says Filippini.

“We want to make sure they get that done as soon as they can, and we want to be sure that they have enough funding to hire enough inspectors to do the monitoring and enforcement,” she says.

But, she adds, “it’s important that decision-makers and regulators aren’t just hearing from representatives of environmental groups — that they also hear from people who live, work, recreate, and go to school in communities where different sources of pollution exist, so they can hear people’s true experiences.”

More than 50 people from several Mon Valley communities are part of North Braddock Residents for our Future, says Edith Abeyta, an artist who is one of the original members. The group formed in 2013 to oppose fracking, and still does, “but the majority of our membership is really impacted by air quality with or without frack pads,” Abeyta says.

Even before face masks became a part of everyone’s daily outfits, the group was screen-printing them. It began doing so last March, for a meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Environmental Justice.

“That was kind of our first entry into using masks as a message carrier. … There’s a large demand for masks,” says Abeyta, who works out of an art studio in Hazelwood where masks can be fabricated and printed for advocacy or neighborhood campaigns. “If we can continue to use the mask as a format for our message, in a situation where people are already having to wear masks, we’re thinking it could be powerful and call attention to air quality issues here in the region.”

Filippini cites things that individuals can do:

  • Learn about the region’s air quality at airnow.gov.
  • Check the air quality index before planning outdoor activities, or sign up for Allegheny Alerts.
  • Use the SmellPgh app to report odors to the Health Department.
  • Volunteer to become a Smoke Reader for GASP.

“There are personal choices you can make for you and your family” to lessen exposure to pollutants and reduce energy consumption, says Filippini. “Educate yourself and do what you can.”