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New Study Documents High Asthma Prevalence, Poor Control Among Children Residing Near Outdoor Air Pollution Sites in Allegheny County

A peer-reviewed study conducted by a local doctor shows children in Allegheny County living near major pollution sources had nearly triple the prevalence of asthma as compared to the national average. 

The study was published in the Journal of Asthma and documents serious public health concerns about children residing near sources of pollution, especially African American children and those living in poverty in Allegheny County. 

The article presents the findings of the Surveillance and Tracking of Asthma in our Region’s Schoolchildren (STARS) from 2014-2017 and was conducted by Community Partners in Asthma Care Medical Director Dr. Deborah A. Gentile when she was with the Allegheny Health Network. 

STARS screened more than 1,200 children at 15 elementary schools, including schools in Clairton and Braddock.

The findings showed that the overall presence of asthma was 22.5 percent, nearly triple the national rate of 8.5 percent reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The study also noted the highest rate of asthma – 26.8 percent – was among African American children in these communities.

The study indicates that children living near smokestack pollution bear a disproportionate burden of exposure and negative health impacts: These children experienced much higher rates of pollution exposure than the national averages and above thresholds recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

  • About 70 percent of children studied were exposed to PM 2.5 fine particle pollution at an annual mean level greater than 10 ug/m3, which is WHO’s recommended upper limit of annual average exposure. This compares with 3.1 percent rate of exposure nationally at this same level. This rate of exposure is alarmingly high. 
  • Children exposed to pollution levels above this 10ug/m3 threshold increased their odds of having asthma by 58 percent as compared to those exposed to lower pollution limits.
  • Of this same sample, 38.9 percent of the participating children were exposed to PM 2.5 fine particle pollution at an annual mean level greater than 12 ug/m3, which is the U.S. EPA’s compliance limit (averaged over three years). 

Children in the study lived in Clairton, Woodland Hills, Allegheny Valley, Northgate, and Gateway school districts, with many living in environmental justice communities populated with a high percentage of low-income and African American families. 

The study spotlights the health inequalities that exist between African Americans and other children: Overall prevalence of asthma in the study was highest among African Americans (26.8 percent) and those 10-12 years of age (26.7 percent) on public health insurance. 

“The persistence of inequities across our region show up in the most vulnerable populations, our children,” said Jamil Bey, director of the UrbanKind Institute and convener of the Black Environmental Collective. “The children of families in closest proximity to the polluters, with fewer resources to relocate, make regular doctor’s visits, and proactively manage asthma – these children bear the burden of the region’s lax pollution control and enforcement laws.” 

The study also documented that 59.3 percent of children suffered from uncontrolled asthma, experiencing symptoms throughout the day and night, and preventing them from performing daily activities, including exercise, without shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing. 

Female children whose pollution exposure exceeded the 10ug/m3 standard were nearly five times more likely to have uncontrolled asthma than females whose exposure was less than the standard.

“It’s not just the children, but the effects of pollution generationally,” said Cheryl Hurt, a lifelong resident of Clairton who runs a daycare center in the community. “We need to reduce the hazardous particles that are making it harder for us to breathe and are killing us. It starts at the top, the federal, state and local governments are not doing enough about this age-old problem.” 

The authors attempted to find a control group that matched the demographic profile of the group of children included in the study but were not exposed to large point source outdoor air pollution sources. However, no such communities existed in Allegheny County. 

All residential locations within Allegheny County whose demographic profile was similar to that of the study resided in close proximity to outdoor air pollution sites. 

This finding further documents that African Americans in Allegheny County are much more likely to reside near outdoor air pollution sites. 

“Pittsburgh remains a challenging region in which to live with asthma due to both the high disease prevalence and exposure to high levels of outdoor air pollution,” said Dr. Gentile, who also serves as the medical director of Allergy and Asthma Wellness Centers. 

At the time of the study, air pollution affecting the communities came from the U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, the now-shuttered DTE Energy Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island, as well as the NRG Cheswick Generating Station and the Monroeville Pennsylvania Turnpike Junction. 

“The results of this study emphasize the importance of primary prevention – interventions before health effects occur – specifically, reductions in exposure to air pollution, to decrease the disparities in asthma prevalence in our region,” she continued. “Disparate children in our region, particularly African American children, are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution that are associated with increased asthma prevalence. We must stop these harmful levels of pollution.” 

Grant Oliphant, president of The Heinz Foundation that funded the study, agreed.

“This data should shock everyone in our community out of any sense of complacency about the damage caused by industrial pollution,” he said. “There is no excuse for continuing to expose our children to this level of harm when it could be so easily reduced through more stringent regulation, stronger enforcement and better compliance. We need to demand better.” 

“Our local leaders, regulators, industry – all of us – have a role to play in protecting the most vulnerable members of society,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “This report is damning and underscores the need to act quickly.”

The accepted manuscript of the article can be accessed: https://bit.ly/34U3LQa 

Editor’s Note: Did you know that GASP last year honored study author Dr. Gentile with a Michelle Madoff Award of Environmental Excellence. You can read more about that on our blog.

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