Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to live and I love it here. The people are kind and generous, the food scene is great and getting better, and there are a million things to do around town. Oh, and the air here is much cleaner than it used to be. At least that’s what most people say around town. But is it clean enough?

As Pittsburgh shifts its age-old reputation from an old dirty steel down to a modern center of cultural and technological renaissance, its progress is slowed by a legacy of old polluting industries in a region prone to weather inversions–all of which keep the Pittsburgh region near the top of the list of American cities struggling with air quality. Indeed, the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air report re-affirmed this reputation, as noted by Don Hopey in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“The report ranked the region the eighth worst of more than 200 metropolitan areas in the nation for long-term (annual) soot pollution; the 14th worst for short-term or daily soot pollution, and the 29th worst for ozone, the main precursor for unhealthy smog.” Excerpted from an article by Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (link)

I moved to Pittsburgh in 2006 from California, and I didn’t think much of the air quality for the first few years. I heard it was bad, but I also heard that it was better than it used to be, and that most of the worst pollution happened in other parts of town. I’d occasionally smell something funny, but always figured it was just a local phenomenon, like somebody was re-paving a driveway I couldn’t see, or a dirty old truck had passed by. Eventually, however, I noticed that the smell was not just an issue on my block, but pervaded a good portion of the city. It didn’t happen every day, but often enough that it troubled me–particularly on days when I wanted to go jogging outside. I began to look into it more closely and found piles of resources on the topic. The Breathe Project website was particularly helpful, hosting articles, presentations, and statistics that caused me to grow more concerned, and more intrigued. I started to test out my own air quality using low-cost monitors (first through the ROCIS program, then on my own with Awair devices), and after a few years of growing immersion in the space, I decided I needed to document all that I had found and open the conversation up to a wider audience.

And so, in early 2016 I decided to begin work on a documentary film tentatively entitled, “Inversion: The Unfinished Business of Pittsburgh’s Air.” The film will be examining multiple “inversions” as they relate to air quality: 1. weather inversions affect the ability of pollution to disperse, particularly in the Pittsburgh region, 2. there is an inversion underway in the power relationship between citizens and governments/corporations with the incoming wave of low-cost citizen science sensors and devices, and 3. there is an inversion underway in the nature of business as polluting industries using fossil fuel combustion shift to battery powered cars and trucks, often powered by clean renewable energy.

While much of Pittsburgh cheers for the Paris Climate Agreement, we quietly suffer from poor air quality that will likely persist as long as we continue to embrace fossil fueled cars, trucks, and industry. I hope that my film will speed up the implementation of air-cleaning, climate-helping solutions in our region by telling the stories of those on the frontiers of air quality in the Pittsburgh area. And once we learn how to transition to a truly clean air economy here, perhaps the rest of the world will seek to apply those lessons to their own air and climate frontiers.

–Mark Dixon, Director/Producer


Mark Dixon is an award-winning filmmaker, activist, and public speaker exploring the frontiers of social change on a finite planet. You can learn more about Mark at his website: http://lens.blue/about/ .

The poster art for the film was created by Dionisio Ceballos. I knew he was the artist for the job when I saw his landscape paintings here. The header of this website is based on that poster art.