Case Study: How Pittsburgh is Using Community Programs & Air Quality Monitors

Pittsburgh air quality

  • Topic: Pittsburgh air quality and the Breathe Project 
  • Industry: Air Quality, Community Development 
  • Author: Adrian Dybwad 
  • Website: 


Can an area achieve economic growth without sacrificing air quality? From the Great London Smog of the 1950s to China’s dense polluted skies, progress and poor air quality always go hand in hand. And Pittsburgh isn’t exempted from this observation.  

Known as the “City of Smoke” in the 1940s, the citizens of Pittsburgh once took pride in their moniker. They saw air pollution as a sign of prosperity and progress, as more factories meant more jobs and opportunities.  

However, that is no longer the case today. With the rise of air quality studies, the city now understands that poor air quality results in disease and death. In fact, the World Health Organization reports that 7 million people die annually due to air pollution-related illnesses.  

So, the citizens of Pittsburgh have teamed up with the Breathe Project to demand cleaner air from factories, organizations, and the government. They’re doing this by using low-cost air quality monitors, like PurpleAir, to build a rich air quality network. Now, they can monitor the air quality in their local communities. 

Today, let’s delve into how Pittsburgh is finding the balance between healthier air quality and economic growth with the help of PurpleAir.  

Pittsburgh’s History with Air Pollution

Steel factories polluting Pittsburgh’s air in 1906
Source: Wikipedia 


Pittsburgh’s history of poor air quality can be traced back to the 1800s. During this time, coal mining was one of its main economic activities, and coal was its primary fuel source. By the 1900s, air pollution became more prominent as more factories were built in the city. One of which was the United States Steel Corporation, accounting for 60% of the country’s steel production.

These factories polluted the air so much that lampposts had to be lit at midday due to the blackened sky. They also emitted hazardous levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).  

Considered one of the most dangerous pollutants, PM2.5 can bypass the body’s immune system. Once inside, it attacks your lungs, heart, and almost every other organ in your body. Air quality research has linked it to pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, cancer, neurological disorders, and more. 

Pittsburgh’s Air Quality Today

While several of Pittsburgh’s factories have closed today, the ones standing today continue to pose a significant health risk to citizens in the area. According to the 2022 State of the Air Report, Pittsburgh ranks as the following: 

  • 14th most polluted for year-round particle pollution 
  • 22nd worst for short-term particle pollution 
  • 46th most polluted city for ozone smog 

Because of the poor air quality in Pittsburgh, Allegheny County is a part of the 1% of US counties at risk of cancer from toxic air pollutants from stationary sources. Additionally, 22.5% of Pittsburgh students have reportedly developed asthma from exposure to air pollution emitted by the factories nearby. 

And factories aren’t the only culprit for the air pollution in Pittsburgh. 

Fracking operations have also contributed to the deteriorating air quality. So much so that an air quality study notes that for every 3 job years that fracking creates, a resident in Pittsburgh loses one year of life due to air pollution. 

Carnegie Mellon University also reports that the following are other major sources of air pollution in Pittsburgh: 

  1. Excessive natural gas production 
  2. Increased frequency of wildfires 
  3. Lack of enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations  

All these are further worsened by temperature inversions. This natural phenomenon prevents air pollution from leaving the troposphere, resulting in more days of poor air quality. However, the citizens of Pittsburgh are fighting back. They’ve teamed up with the Breathe Project to enhance hyper-local air quality monitoring through low-cost air quality monitors.  

What is the Breathe Project?

Established in 2016, the Breathe Project is an air quality organization that aims to use the latest science and technology to improve the air quality in Pittsburgh, Southwestern Pennsylvania, and beyond. It achieves this by building a resource center for all air quality news and research. On top of that, the Breathe Project develops opportunities to encourage citizen engagement.  

Today, the Breathe Collaborative is a thriving community of citizens, environmental advocates, health professionals, and academics working to create cleaner air.  

How Pittsburgh is Using PurpleAir to Demand Better Air Quality 

It’s widely known that the air quality in Pittsburgh has plummeted. However, citizens have no concrete means of measuring their immediate air quality levels. Because of this, they can’t make quick and informed decisions to protect their health. Worse, they don’t have concrete evidence that the air quality in their community has been worsening or improving. 

But this has been changing ever since the Breathe Project started distributing PurpleAir air quality monitors. With it, they created a rich air quality network that provides hyperlocal, real-time data to all citizens through the PurpleAir Map

Beyond this, the collaborative also established a Breathe Cam. The 24/7 live video feed shows the air quality of different locations, including Pittsburgh’s skyline, Mon Valley, and Ohio River Valley. This way, citizens can study the visual impact of air quality on the environment. 

Another program by the Breathe Project is the Smell Pittsburgh (Smell PGH) project. The app encourages citizens to report the quality of air they’re breathing and combines that information with data from the PurpleAir air quality monitors. Through this, anyone can observe how odors from air pollution travel across the city. 

With these initiatives, air quality has been put in the spotlight, empowering citizens to push for better air quality policies and regulations from policymakers. They’ve also been using these to hold factories, industries, and businesses accountable for their impact on air quality. 

One day soon, Pittsburgh hopes to find the right balance between economic progress and healthy air quality. Until then, they will continue to stand up for cleaner air. 

About PurpleAir

Since being founded in 2018, PurpleAir has dedicated itself to providing highly precise air quality monitors that track hyper-local air quality levels in real time. In doing this, PurpleAir is empowering community scientists and helping to facilitate social change through accessible air quality data for all. By working together, everyone is more informed and able to make changes in their local communities to improve air quality.