Pittsburgh, America's "Steel City," snagged a second designation — albeit a negative one — this week when, for the first time, the American Lung Association designated it the most air-polluted U.S. city.
"Everyone has someone in their family whose health is threatened by the pollution we talk about in this report. Every day we're learning more about these dangers," said Bernadette Toomey, American Lung Association president and CEO. "One hundred twenty five million Americans live in areas that have unhealthy levels of air pollution. … Americans are still being denied the protection they deserve under the Clean Air Act."
The American Lung Association analyzed data from more than 700 counties from 2004 to 2006 from local air quality sensors. It did not take into account the changes to the Clean Air Act passed by Congress in March. According to the report, two out of five Americans live in areas that have unhealthful levels of some type of air pollution — either ozone or particle pollution.
The group's "State of the Air" report released Thursday grades American cities based on their air quality in three categories: short-term and year-round particle pollution — a combination of ash, soot, diesel exhaust and aerosols — as well as levels of ozone, or smog. Heightened levels of both particle pollution and smog adversely effect lung health, according to experts.
Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, was the seventh most polluted city by ozone.
According to Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the association's chief medical officer, both smog and particle pollution have serious health effects on human lungs.
Edelman describes smog damage as "getting a bad sunburn in your lungs."
Particle pollution poses different, more serious problems. Microscopic particles of ash, soot and other chemicals are so small that they slip past the body's defenses like coughing and sneezing. They then burrow into the lungs and can asthma, heart attacks, cardiovascular disease and even lung cancer.
Los Angeles, a habitual offender on the most polluted cities lists, was rated the most polluted city by ozone and year-round for particle pollution.
"Particulate pollution is a major killer in the United States," Edelman said. "Exposure to particle pollution increases the chance for lung cancer and may explain, at least in part, lung cancer in non-smoking individuals. … The more we study the more we learn and frankly the more difficult and terrifying it seems to be exposed to these high levels of pollution."
For the first time, Pittsburgh scored poorly in short-term particle pollution, overtaking habitual offender Los Angeles. Pittsburgh also came in second on the list of most polluted cities for year-round particle pollution.
George Leikauf, a professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh, found the results of the study only "a little surprising."
The Washington, D.C. and Baltimore Areas appeared on the most polluted lists for both ozone pollution and short-term particle pollution.
"We knew that the eastern seaboard has had trouble with particulate matter. It's still a problem," Leikauf said. "I'm not an apologist for Pittsburgh. … Particulate has been associated with more deaths than ozone. If you had to pick your poison, you'd rather have ozone than particulate matter."