Asthma rates among elementary school students in the Northgate School District have dropped significantly since one of the region’s top polluters ended operations in 2016, according to preliminary data.
DTE Energy’s Shenango Coke Works, part of which was imploded last week, was located within a couple miles of the school buildings. For more than five decades, the Neville Island facility turned coal into coke to make steel.
In 2014, pediatrician Deborah Gentile surveyed 146 students* who attended Bellevue and Avalon Elementary schools, which are within 2 miles of the plant. She found more than one-quarter had asthma.
Then in 2016, Shenango closed. Researchers wanted to see if there had been any public health improvement, so this year Gentile repeated the survey.
The asthma rate dropped from 25 percent in 2014 to 19 percent in 2018.
“It is very reassuring that if you can clean the air that you can actually improve these health outcomes,” said Gentile.
Gentile also found that people diagnosed with asthma had an easier time managing their disease after the plant closed. Furthermore, the risk of kids developing asthma fell from 19 percent to 8 percent.
Gentile said she wasn't surprised to see such rapid improvements in public health after the plant closed. When it comes to ailments like asthma and heart disease, the impacts of air pollution are felt right away, she said.
“Other types of diseases like cancer, premature mortality, premature infants, those take years for us to be able to measure those changes,” she said.
Gentile’s findings have yet to be confirmed through peer review. Allegheny County’s chief epidemiologist LuAnn Brink said it’s possible that the 2014 survey might have had an over representation of kids with asthma, and therefore, the impacts of Shenango’s closing might be less profound.
“The first people who get in line for a study are people with the condition,” said Brink. “It’s what we call in epidemiology a ‘response bias.’”
But Brink said Gentile’s research does correlate with county data that show a decrease in emergency department visits for respiratory disease among people living close to the plant.
“And on top of that, we looked at day-to-day emergency department visits, and we found that indeed it was on the higher pollution days that we had surges in emergency department visits,” said Brink.
Brink added the stress of living near the plant might have also exacerbated the effects of pollution, since anxiety or aggitation can lead to inflamatory responses.
Brink said it’s important that the county continue looking at this issue since it appears Shenango’s closing has positively impacted human health, particularly when it comes to ED visits.
“There are certain things that I’m trying to explore further because I don’t want to make any errors or missteps here,” she said. “I can’t find any other quantifiable reason at this point."
*This story has been updated with additional information.