Analysis: Cleveland’s Air Quality

While driving into Cleveland early this morning, I was met with, as I do every time I make this morning commute, the gleaming lights from the skyscrapers and tall buildings downtown. It’s a beautiful sight that makes the 6 a.m. commute less miserable. Terminal Tower was lit up in orange, green and white — the reason for this particular color scheme, I’m not quite sure. Amidst the dark skies tinted purple from the upcoming sunrise, I could see the bright red KeyBank logo.

I noticed something unsettling today, though: thick, gray blankets of smog pouring out of smokestacks, clouding over the otherwise picturesque cityscape. A large orange flame was blowing wildly out of one of the stacks. Even before sunrise, this industrial city needs to be awake — but I can’t help wondering if Cleveland has made any progress controlling air pollution.

The city is often known by its nickname “the mistake on the Lake” — sometimes for its bad luck in sports, but other times for the Cuyahoga River fire. For my post this week, I decided to switch gears from pipelines and instead analyze Cleveland’s current standing with regards to pollution and air quality.

1. Cuyahoga County received an ‘F’ grade in High Ozone Days from the American Lung Association

Each year, the American Lung Association publishes a “State of the Air” report that compiles air quality data from regions and cities across the country. It then assigns a ‘grade’ to those areas based on factors like ‘high ozone days’ and particle pollution. It also analyzes the number of people in different demographics and age groups that could have been affected by those conditions. Cuyahoga County received an “F” rating in the high ozone days category in the 2018 report.

How is this calculated?

The grade is based on the “weighted average”, which is found by adding the three years of individual level data, multiplying the sums of each level by the assigned standard weights and calculating the average. Weighted averages above 3.3 are classified as ‘F’.

What’s a high ozone day?

Unhealthy levels of ozone are caused when weather conditions combine with pollutants, which can lead to health effects. It is important to note that while the ‘F’ grade for Cuyahoga County is alarming, many cities and regions to do not monitor this type of data, and therefore cannot be compared in the report. Also, the data in the 2018 report was measured from 2014-2016. With 2016 being the second warmest year on record, it is likely that the increase in temperatures naturally added to the spike in ozone across the country, including Cleveland.

Nine other Ohio counties received an ‘F’ rating. The graph below compares the counties by their weighted averages.Counties with 'F' Grade for High Ozone Days

2. The Cleveland area ranked #10th most polluted city by year-round particle pollution

In addition to county statistics, the American Lung Association provides rankings for America’s most polluted cities. Cities are ranked in three different categories: by ozone, by year-round particle pollution, and short-term particle pollution. On the year-round particle pollution list, Cleveland-Akron-Canton ranks 10th — tied with the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland.

What is particle pollution?

Particle pollution, according to, is a mixture of tiny solid and liquid particles in the air. The level of year-round particle pollution, then, is measured by the concentration of particles “day-in and day-out”, the American Lung Association explains. This means the Cleveland area ranked in the top ten cities for most particle pollution on a yearly basis, rather than a short-term period of time.

It’s important to note, though, that Cleveland moved up from the ninth spot, which it held in the previous report. Here are the other cities that made the list:

particle pollution.PNG

3. In 2015, Cleveland area had “unhealthy” air pollution 174 days out of the year

A study from Environment America Research & Policy Center released last year found that the Cleveland area’s particle pollution reached “unhealthy” levels for 174 days during 2015. That rate was the third highest in Ohio, with Akron reporting high levels 188 days out of the year, and Steubenville (grouped together with Weirton, W. Va) with 196. The particles measured included soot, smoke, dirt and dust.

The Cleveland-Elyria area also had 68 ‘smog days’, according to the report, which means the smog pollution — ground-level ozone — was at a dangerous level.

The graph below shows Cleveland had “unhealthy” air pollution (blue section) about 32% of the year.

Cleveland's Particle Pollution in 2015

I hate to sound like a Negative Nelly here; it is important to note that each of these studies mention improvements both in Cleveland and nationwide as more air quality regulations are passed each year. It’s clear to see, though, that Cleveland’s air is not exactly clean.

I hope that the city will some day be remembered more for the sights I described at the beginning of this blog post — the Terminal Tower lights often glowing with sports team colors with pride, the picturesque city scape, the buildings housing city employees in this industrial area — rather than the clouds of smoke billowing into the already dirty air.

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