Pittsburgh’s Air Pollution (1940s vs Today)

I saw this BuzzFeed article contrasting the difference in air pollution (through photographs) in Pittsburgh’s streets almost 70 years ago. (Do take a look!) The contrast is quite startling; seeing photographs of the hazy air (the outlines of buildings nearby are obscured) gives a better picture of just how severe pollution issues are in the past too.

While looking through the pictures, I felt quite happy that there is much progress for the better, and this made me wonder if it is possible for many highly polluted streets and regions to improve their air quality too. What is important to note is that measures take time — perhaps, we cannot expect air quality to improve overnight. But we can be hopeful that many decades later, there is a possibility of cleaner air.

Indeed, the Atlantic had used these pictures to tell netizens who are criticising Beijing’s air quality that it takes time, and Pittsburgh took close to a century to reduce the amount of smoke and soot particles in the air to the level it is at today. Contrast Pittsburgh’s development in the 19th century as the city, powered by coal, emerged as one of the main metalworks industries in the country with Beijing’s excessive coal powered power plants today.

This is Pittsburgh back in the 1940s. Source: http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/mt/assets/science/downtown.jpeg [Last accessed: 1 March 2015]

After looking at these pictures, I have some thoughts (these are not necessarily referring to Pittsburgh and Beijing; I am thinking about many cities around the world in general):

1. The political will of the city/country’s authorities

After looking through the pictures, it might be tempting to say that severe air pollution around the world is acceptable for developing cities, and that they just need to be given a longer time to solve their air pollution issues because they are inevitable with industrial development. I think that it is unacceptable to say that just because other countries were able to pollute the air without much dire consequences (laws were not as strict as those today), one should be permitted to pollute the air as much as they would want to. It may be unfair for countries who are at the other end of the developmental ladder, but I feel that there is a responsibility towards not just a country’s own citizens, but citizens of the world once there is ample evidence and knowledge on tackling these issues.

That said, we should be aware of the unequal power relations on the world stage — would developed countries push the developmental ladder away from developing countries? Ideally, developed countries with the expertise and experience should provide their technological known-how for other countries to tackle the same problem they faced many years ago, but which country is entirely selfless to do that without any reservations or motives (settling a deal, etc)? I think not.

2. The situation may not have improved as much as we thought it had

For instance, back to Pittsburgh: it is reported in 2014 that the air quality is still bad despite improvements, due to shifts towards natural gas from coal-powered plants, with increases in unhealthy ground-level ozone. Soot and smoke particles may have declined, but many cities around the world are facing a new set of pollution problems which are less visible. PM2.5, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are just a few examples.


Hopey, D. (2014). Pittsburgh region still gets poor marks for air pollution. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. [Online] Retrieved from: http://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2014/04/30/Air-pollution-Pittsburgh-American-Lung-Association/stories/201404300135 [Last accessed: 1 March 2015]

Madrigal, A. (2013). Aghast over Beijing’s Air Pollution? This was Pittsburgh not that long ago. The Atlantic. [Online] Retrieved from:  http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/aghast-over-beijings-air-pollution-this-was-pittsburgh-not-that-long-ago/267237/ [Last accessed: 1 March 2015]


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