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Poor Air Quality Linked To High Asthma Rate In Pittsburgh Children

A report released Thursday by the Allegheny Health Network found a high rate of asthma in Allegheny County elementary school students. The study suggests poor air quality is partially responsible for the pervasive incidences of childhood asthma in the Pittsburgh region.

Deborah Gentile, the director of allergy and asthma clinical research at Allegheny Health Network, surveyed 267 fifth graders in the county and found 29 percent had asthma and 11 percent more were at risk of developing the disease.

AHN conducted the survey in response to feedback from inner city school nurses who reported about half of their students using inhalers. Gentile said there was a lack of objective regional data, as the state and county rely on random phone surveys asking callers about different diseases.

“The bottom line is the numbers the state and county give us are good at the state and county level, but they just don’t get down to the neighborhoods,” she said.

She said despite the availability of local primary care providers, asthma is still underdiagnosed and undertreated.  

“These people are sick and they don’t know it," she said. "It’s only when you start to make them feel better that they start to realize they were having a problem. They’re just used to it. You know it really makes me sad. There are doctors here that can take care of them, there are medicines. We just need to get the two together.”

The study also suggests poor regional air quality contributes to the local incidence and severity of the disease. A school in the Woodland Hills district, near Steel Works in Braddock, and a school in the Clariton district, near the coke facility where petroleum is refined, were both included.

Children in Northgate School District were also surveyed when the Neville Island coke plant was still operating. The plant started the process of shutting down in January.

“So we’re actually going to have a nice situation there, while we’ve studied these children while that plant was up and running,” Gentile said. “And then after a year we’re going to go back and try to repeat some of the studies with the plant closed.”

The American Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh as the eighth most polluted city in the U.S. based on annual air quality. Air pollution is one factor that increases asthma risk.

“You know there are things linking obesity to asthma as well,” Gentile said. “But those things require motivational intervention and it requires the patient and their families to cooperate. Cleaning the air is something that the patient doesn’t have to worry about. If we can get it cleaned up, it’s done and it’s clean for everyone.”

Gentile said there are plans to expand the screening program statewide.