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Air Pollution

Indoor Air Pollution

How healthy is the air around you? Much of your overall health can be improved by simply breathing better air and there are many small things that you can do to help increase your air quality. Studies have shown that indoor air has higher levels of toxins and pollutants than outdoor air. Factors that contribute to poor indoor air quality include:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that "volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects." EPA further indicates that concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. Products that contain VOCs include: paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.

What You Can Do to promote a healthy home:

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Outdoor Air Pollution

Particle Pollution

In the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air Report (, Pittsburgh was ranked as the third worst metropolitan area for the amount of short term fine particle (PM2.5) pollution. That was a slight improvement from the previous two years, in which Pittsburgh was ranked number one. Through the years Pittsburgh has made great strides toward decreasing the pollution in our region. From being referred to as “Smokey Pittsburgh” in the 1970s where the skies were darkened by the smoke of the steel mills to today where the skies are clearer and the air fresher. But there is still much work to be done before we can claim truly healthy air. With the loss of many steel mills, the region’s air has improved; however, that was not the only cause of our pollution. Particulate pollution consists of soot, ash, dust and aerosols and can be generated from coal-fired power plants, industrial activities like coke-making, construction activities, burning of diesel fuel, road dust, and brake wear on vehicles. This pollution has lasting affects on our health including increased rates in asthma, heart attacks, strokes, various cancers and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).


There are two types of ozone; ground-level ozone and ozone found in the atmosphere. Ozone in the atmosphere is healthy ozone that helps protect life from damaging ultraviolet rays. Ground-level ozone on the other hand, can become very unhealthy, very quickly.

As indicated on EPA’s website (,“ ozone is a gas composed of three oxygen atoms. It is not usually emitted directly into the air, but at ground-level is created by a chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight…In the earth's lower atmosphere, ground-level ozone is considered "bad." Motor vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents as well as natural sources emit NOx and VOC that help form ozone... Sunlight and hot weather cause ground-level ozone to form in harmful concentrations in the air. Many urban areas tend to have high levels of "bad" ozone, but even rural areas are also subject to increased ozone levels because wind carries ozone and pollutants that form it hundreds of miles away from their original sources.”

Ground-level ozone can be a lung irritant, especially in children, older adults and people with asthma, which may help explain the abundance of asthmatics in the region. Ozone Action Days are not uncommon in this region, especially during the summer months. Smog is a byproduct of ozone, and is a common reminder to Pittsburghers about air pollution. In order to improve our air quality, simple steps can be taken to reduce the amount of Ozone Action Days.

Toxic Air Pollution

Mercury, benzene, dioxin, toluene and others are all considered air toxins. Air toxins, also known as hazardous air pollutants, are those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects, birth defects or adverse environmental effects.

Mercury, for instance, is emitted into the air via coal-fired power plants. This is a particular concern for Pennsylvania residents, as PA contains five of the top 25 most polluting power plants in the country. In the Pittsburgh region, there are 16 coal-fired power plants, and many of these have received notices of violation from the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as violations from the PA Department of Environmental Protection including smokestack emissions violations. Mercury is a heavy metal and once in the air, it settles into the soil and waterways, moving up the food chain and causing a buildup in organisms. For more information on how it affects aquatic life, check out the water section of our website.

What You Can Do to improve air quality in Pittsburgh:

Air Quality Index

The Air Quality Index (AQI), previously known as Pollutant Standards Index, provides daily reports of air quality in relation to smog, ultra-microscopic particles (PM2.5- fine particles/PM10- coarse particles), sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. The pollutants are scaled from 0-500 in five different health categories; good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy and very unhealthy. The index allows citizens to make responsible outdoor actions based on the air quality of that day.

Learn more at

Get To Know the Color of Your Air by the Air Quality Index (AQI) AQI informs the public every day on what the air quality outside your home is like so you can plan and adjust your schedule for outside activities like picnics, camping and hiking.

Backyard Burning

Backyard burning is a growing problem for the environment. One pound of waste burned domestically can release 40 times more toxins than an EPA-compliant municipal waste combustor. EPA-compliant municipal waste combustors burn at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and add oxygen to burn the waste completely. When not burned at these levels, hydrogen chloride and dioxins are released into the environment at unsafe levels. These toxins can enter the lungs and cause major health problems such as nausea and dizziness. Make sure to properly dispose of your waste to protect yourself and the environment.

Do not burn plastic! Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is released when you burn a plastic container. Smoke from the burning can cause fluid to build in your lungs. Recycle these plastic containers and avoid purchasing plastics numbered 3, 6 and 7.

What You Can Do to properly dispose of trash:

Information about backyard burning:

Diesel Emissions

In Pittsburgh, children’s visits to the emergency room for asthma symptoms are 400% higher than any other city in the US. This is due to Pittsburgh’s poor air quality from diesel emissions and the lasting effects of the once booming coal industry. The EPA’s tolerable diesel soot cancer risk is one in 1 million; in Pittsburgh it is one in 2,499, leaving people in our region with 408 times greater risk of developing diesel soot cancer. It is projected that in 2010, Pittsburgh workers will miss 13,558 days of work because of exposure to diesel fine particles.

Diesel engines can last 20 to 30 years, so many old and dirty engines are still on the road releasing toxic fumes into the air.

What You Can Do to help cut down on fumes:


Information on Retrofit Devices

People living in a 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania have a significantly higher than acceptable risk of developing cancer due to exposure to toxic air pollution released by manufacturing processes, energy production and diesel combustion, according to a new report by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities. To read the full press release click here.

To read the full report, click here.

To read the Breath Project blog, click here.