May 1, 2008 -- 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."
Although much of the country may have a stereotype of Pittsburgh as a blue collar, steel mill town, Leikauf says that's no longer the case. According to him, more than 80 percent of western Pennsylvania's particulate matter actually drifts from Ohio power plants.
"It turns out we don't have very many steel mills at all anymore," Leikauf said. "These are fine particles. They stay suspended in the air. You can detect them in the Antarctic. In fact, some of California's air pollution is coming from China."
Detroit was the ninth most polluted city by short-term particle pollution.
Los Angeles still led the pack of the most polluted American cities year-round in ozone.
Also, appearing on the list of cities most polluted by ozone were Bakersfield, Calif.; Houston; Dallas-Ft. Worth; New York-Newark and Baltimore-Washington, D.C.
New York, N.Y./Newark, N.J. ranked as the eighth most polluted city by ozone.
The association releases the report every year in hopes of educating the public and improving government controls on air quality.
Nolen suggests that communities look at alternative ways of dealing with air pollution, such as getting cleaner technology for diesel vehicles like school buses and garbage trucks or smarter urban planning. She also said that global warming schemes aren't necessarily the solution.
"Cap and trade [schemes] don't address the local problem," she said. "Planting a tree in Brazil isn't going to help the kid riding his bike next to a freeway in Washington, D.C.
For the first time ever, Pittsburgh landed on the top of a most polluted cities list. The American Lung Association ranked the "Steel City" first in short-term particle pollution and second in year-long particle pollution.
Leikauf, the professor in Pittsburgh, says the implications for Americans are huge and that although the report was broken down by city, this is not just a local issue.
"People need to be aware of that fact that air pollution causes illnesses in the United States. They can think about their daily habits, their auto choices. Everything that they do does impact this question," he said. "We also have to worry about it as a country. You cannot sleep when you have real problems and let them just fester. — The country needs to have clean air.
"If you clean the air now it's going to be clean forever. … The cost benefit is very high."
To find out how your city fared, go to www.lungusa.org.