An Update on Improving Regional Air Quality

Oct 10, 2014 Environment

Launched by The Heinz Endowments in the fall of 2011, the Breathe Project is a broad-based regional coalition to improve air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Despite significant progress in recent decades, air quality in the Pittsburgh region remains among the worst in the nation, and we aren’t improving as quickly as other urban areas. Pittsburgh ranks among the worst 10 percent of U.S. cities for average annual levels of fine particle pollution, and the cancer risk from air toxics in Allegheny County is in the top 2 percent in the nation. Raising public awareness about our region’s air quality issues poses a further challenge due to the widely held misperception that the problem dissipated along with the heavy smoke of the last century.

“We need to educate people that this problem still exists,” says Phil Johnson, interim director of the Endowments Environment Program and director of the Breathe Project. “The myth in Pittsburgh is that our air is clean because it is better today than in the past. But better isn’t good enough, and people are suffering as a result, especially children, older adults and other vulnerable populations.”

Exposure to levels of air pollution measured in southwestern Pennsylvania today has been linked to asthma, heart and lung disease, cancer, adverse birth outcomes — and even premature death. Clean air also is vital to our economic future and makes good business sense. Poor air quality impacts the health of our workforce, leading to increased medical costs and loss of productivity. It also hinders corporate recruitment efforts and drives away the economic growth industries of the future.

In the past three years, the Breathe Project coalition has grown to include nearly 200 businesses, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, foundations and government agencies in support of our mission. We have developed a robust body of scientific research detailing the health and economic impacts of poor air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Breathe Project also has helped to position air quality on the civic agenda as a key benchmark of Pittsburgh progress, and we are working toward collaborative solutions toward cleaner air.

In addition, through events and online communications, we continue to raise public awareness about air pollution in the Pittsburgh region, engaging local residents to demand stronger action on this issue from their political leaders and health regulators. A new interactive tool on the Breathe Project website called the Breathe Meter allows users to compare air quality in Pittsburgh to other American cities. Another web feature, Making It Count, showcases initiatives underway by Breathe coalition members and other community partners to improve regional air quality. This fall, we will bring an exciting public art project to Downtown Pittsburgh to help visualize the pollutants in our air, as well as release a new high-tech tool for observing changes in air quality.

“If we truly want to be the ‘most livable’ place in the country, then we have to contend with our air pollution problem,” Johnson says. “Working to connect regional air quality programs, sharing best practices and coordinating efforts will be a major key to addressing this important challenge.”