Photo by Jon Dawson / Flickr

Dr. Deborah Gentile decided to do some research after hearing over and over again from school nurses that nearly half of the students at Pittsburgh area schools were carrying inhalers. Upon digging deeper, she couldn’t believe what she ended up discovering.

And earlier this month, as she presented her findings at “The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community,” neither could many of those listening.

Gentile, who is with the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology of Pediatric Alliance, studied asthma in area schoolchildren living near industrial point sources of pollution.

The results are harrowing.

Her research group, STARS, which stands for Surveillance and Tracking of Asthma in our Region’s Schoolchildren, surveyed 1,207 students — 82.3 percent of whom were living in a prevailing wind path of pollution, including near the Clairton coke works facility, near the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange in Monroeville and several locales near the Edgar Thomson Works steel mill in Braddock, among other places.

According to Gentile, because Pittsburgh is located in a river valley, “pollution sticks around.” She explained that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and World Health Organization (WHO) set limits for pollution exposure. Forty percent of the students surveyed and tested were above the EPA threshold for PM2.5, or a type of fine, inhalable Particulate Matter, and a staggering 70 percent of students surveyed were over the WHO threshold.

Gentile told the crowd that exposure to higher levels of PM2.5 is associated with 1.6 times increased odds of asthma prevalence and 4.7 times increased odds of poorly controlled asthma. Poorly controlled asthma means kids are being rushed to emergency rooms or urgent care facilities because of breathing problems.

The asthma was uncontrolled for nearly 60 percent of those students.

The asthma prevalence rate of 22.5 percent among the students evaluated is more than double the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s statewide figure of 10.2 percent for children. Pittsburgh is 27th among national asthma capitals.

Gentile also discovered a racial disparity amongst students, with Black males having a higher incidence of asthma above any other group. However, when STARS accounted for gender, economic status and race, PM2.5 exposure was still the most decisive factor — a nearly five times greater asthma prevalence.

“These numbers are alarming. They are unacceptable,” Gentile said. “Asthma is the number one chronic reason students miss school.”

Deborah Gentile, MD, after her presentation at the “The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community.” Photo by Brittany Hailer.
Deborah Gentile, MD, after her presentation at the “The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community.” Photo by Brittany Hailer.

This process hasn’t been without stumbling blocks for Gentile and her team:

“What we wanted to do was [research in] Pittsburgh Public Schools, but they viewed this as medical research and they have a policy against medical research. For me to be able to get the prevalence and be able to apply for funding to go in and do interventions … I really needed this to be done scientifically so I could publish it. That required them to do an informed consent. Now that we have the research on 1,200 kids, we’re going to go back and hit many of these schools who couldn’t participate for that reason and just do that as a public service.”

When asked whether companies were doing anything about the pollution in our city, Gentile responded, “It is cheaper for them to pay fines than to pay to upgrade their materials.”

When asked if there’s something parents can do, Gentile responded that they can reach out to Women for a Healthy Environment, which is a partner with the STARS program. They are working to advocate for clean air in light of Pittsburgh’s asthma problem.

In the future, Gentile hopes to see mandatory asthma screenings in Pittsburgh schools — much like checking for scoliosis — but said that the primary prevention for this problem is air quality control.

To that end, there are multiple organizations in Pittsburgh working to handle that very problem. The Group Against Smog and Pollution, or GASP, is one. This watchdog group offers a myriad of ways to get involved in the fight, including becoming a Volunteer Smoke Reader.

The Breathe Project, which uses “the best available science to understand the quality of the air we breathe, build public awareness and improve community health and wellness” is another. On their website is CREATE Lab‘s app, Smell PGH, empowers local citizens to report noxious and potentially dangerous air via their smartphones. Another CREATE Lab app, SpeckSensor, allows users to check the air quality in their area, allowing them to take precautions to minimize exposure.

There’s plenty more that you, yes you, can do to improve Pittsburgh’s air quality.

In an email, Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment offered encouragement: “Although the report’s findings are of significant concern, we know there are steps communities can take to ensure the health and wellbeing of a child.”

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of Chatham University's Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in Hobart, The Fairy Tale Review, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. She is freelance writer and educator.

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