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Summit Assesses Overall Health Effects of Pittsburgh Air Quality

Air quality in Pittsburgh is getting cleaner, but it continues to negatively affect the health and well-being of city residents.

The Breathe Project and Allegheny General Hospital convened a summit Tuesday — World Asthma Day — to examine the overall effects of poor air quality, from increased instances of asthmatic attacks, higher mortality rates and cancer.

Evelyn Talbott, a doctor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the city’s industrial past, its motor vehicles and its unique geography contribute to Pittsburgh’s low air quality.

“There’s a lot of peaks and valleys, a lot of bridges, a lot of ups and downs, so there are pockets that the air pollution gets trapped,” Talbott said. "For that reason alone, we’re sort of at high risk of air pollution episodes.”

Elevated levels of particulate matter, such as soot, negatively affect birth outcomes, a relationship Talbott has studied closely. She said studies have shown that bad air quality can lead to underweight and pre-term births.

“A baby that is under five pounds, pre-term, has a much greater chance of neo-natal mortality, of dying prematurely,” Talbott said.

Though certain factors have received greater attention in the study of air quality, Talbott said she believes it’s important to approach the condition of air quality holistically.

“Multiple pollutants — ozone, carbon monoxide — I think these are all important, and we probably should not get into a rut where we’re only looking at one pollutant, but we’re actually looking at multiple pollutants, the whole picture,” she said.

In Pittsburgh, the whole picture includes an asthma epidemic, according to Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research at the Allergy and Asthma Center of Allegheny Health Network.

“There’s still a national epidemic of asthma," she said. "It’s just one of the diseases we’re having difficulty controlling, and there are certain hotbeds of asthma within the area.”

Days of high pollution can exacerbate asthmatic symptoms and lead to an asthma attack. Even for people who are very aware of their condition, an attack can come on unexpectedly, which can be a terrifying experience.

“A lot of the children will describe it as someone sitting on their chest or squeezing their chest,” Gentile said. “A lot of them will wake up at night with difficulty breathing.”

Though asthma results from a variety of factors, some genetic, some environmental, the epidemic can be addressed by continuing to improve air quality.

“Air quality is one of the factors we have control over,” Gentile said. “Some of the things are genetic and we can’t change someone’s genetic make-up, but many of these environmental exposures we can."