Outside Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek, there’s a little playground with swings, a jungle gym and a couple spring-mounted toy horses. You can’t see it or smell it, but according to data gathered by Carnegie Mellon University, the kids who play there are breathing in about 8 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide and about 5 micrograms per cubic meter of black carbon.
The school is downwind of U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock. The facility has been making steel for almost 150 years, and during that time, nearby residents breathed in pollution spewed from its stacks.
“For years, we've had school nurses tell us a large percentage of children have asthma, that up to half the kids in our schools might have an asthma inhaler,” said Deborah Gentile, an allergy and asthma specialist with the Pediatric Alliance. “We were very curious for a few years to try to do a study like this, to see what the true prevalence or rate of it was.”
Gentile started collecting data in 2015 on asthma rates among 1,200 elementary school children who live near sources of pollution, such as the steel mill in Braddock, Clairton Coke Works and the Cheswick Power Station in Springdale.
“About 35 percent,” she said. “And of those, about two thirds of them, or 24 percent, actually know they have asthma. We’re diagnosing new asthma at about 10 percent.”
The national asthma rate is about 8 percent. In Allegheny County, it’s 13 percent.
Gentile’s method is straightforward. She sends children home with a simple, four-question survey for their caretakers to fill out. It asks how often the child has experienced symptoms, such as wheezing, coughing or trouble breathing.
Gentile compared the results of her survey with CMU data, and found, unsurprisingly, that kids who live near point sources of pollution are more likely to have asthma.
“The kids that are exposed to the highest level of (particulate matter), as well as the highest level black carbon, are twice as likely to have a diagnosis of asthma than those who are exposed to the lower (levels),” Gentile said. “So that really has to be a call for public policy change to clean this air up."
Gentile blames PM 2.5, or particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. It's 24 times thinner than human hair, and it's the main ingredient in black carbon.
“Particulate matter is solid or liquid material that floats around in the air,” said Albert Presto, who collected the air quality data Gentile used in her analysis. “They're actually little particles. They’re not gas molecules; they're little solid or liquid drops that are in the air. Particulate matter is made up of literally thousands of different components."
Because these particles are so small, they embed deep into the lungs. Particulate matter has been linked to health problems such as lung cancer, asthma attacks and even premature death, according to the American Lung Association. Nitrogen oxide also contributes to kids developing asthma or having more frequent attacks.
Gentile said there’s another layer of data included in her analysis that is particularly troubling.
“Near these point sources of pollution, we tend to see more minority families as well as more lower socioeconomic status, and that's what they find in other cities as well,” she said. “These are the people who can't afford to live elsewhere.”
Gentile said the pollution, and the asthma it causes, have far-reaching consequences in a child’s life.
“As a doctor who takes care of children with asthma, I see them missing school [and] not being able to participate in activities," she said. "They're not sleeping at night. Their parents aren't sleeping at night.”
Gentile and her team are currently compiling all of the data from her surveys and expect to put a full report out later this year with the goal of spurring government action.
To start, she’d like to see asthma screenings mandated in schools, and she’s hopeful the data showing that one-third of children near these pollution sources have asthma will be the push policymakers need.
This story is part of The Allegheny Front’s series, Hazardous to Your Health, reporting on pollution in Pittsburgh’s communities.