Asthma in southwestern Pennsylvania remains a significant health problem—and an unmet medical need, according to the local and national experts who gathered last Friday at Allegheny General Hospital to discuss the latest findings on the causes, treatment and prevention of this debilitating chronic disease.
The conference brought together nearly 150 health professionals, civic leaders, parents, environmental advocates, teachers and community members to talk about the impact of Pittsburgh’s air quality relative to the high prevalence of asthma in our region. This third annual event—The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community— was sponsored by Allegheny Health Network in collaboration with the Breathe Project, the Suburban Health Foundation and the American Lung Association.
About 13 to 14 percent of Pittsburgh-area residents have asthma, compared with 8 to 10 percent of the population nationwide, according to conference co-director Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research for the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Allegheny Health Network. Dr. Gentile is currently undertaking a study funded by The Heinz Endowments to better understand asthma incidence among school-age children in the region.
The asthma burden isn’t equally shared in our community, according to speaker Dr. Sally Wenzel, director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC. Asthma incidence and death rates from the disease are significantly higher among African Americans in Allegheny County, Wenzel said, and those living in air pollution hotspots (often in low-income communities) may be at particular risk.
Indeed, people suffering from asthma who live in the Pittsburgh area are most certainly impacted negatively by the poor air quality in southwestern Pennsylvania, according to Phil Johnson, director of the Breathe Project and senior program officer for the Environment Program at The Heinz Endowments.
Air pollution levels in the Pittsburgh area are much higher than in a majority of other cities nationwide and fall out of compliance with national standards, Johnson said at last week’s summit. For example, he noted the worst performing air quality monitor in Allegheny County from 2011-2013, located in Liberty, exceeded the federal limit for fine particle pollution by 12 percent. It registered 34 percent and 52 percent above the health-protective recommendations of the World Health Organization and Canada-Wide Standards, respectively.
And the problem isn’t confined to just a single bad monitor in the Mon Valley, Johnson said. Relative to the national air quality monitoring network, nine out of 10 monitors in Allegheny County for fine particle pollution rank in the worst third nationwide. Six out of 10 monitors rank in the worst 10 percent in the country.
Air quality in Pittsburgh also isn’t improving as quickly as other cities that our region is competing with for top talent and innovative businesses that will shape our economic future, Johnson noted. He cited a recent analysis by Clean Air Task Force finding that Allegheny County was in the 10 percent of counties nationwide that failed to meet new tighter standards for fine particle pollution based on 2010-12 monitoring data, More than half of the U.S. counties had already met—or fallen below—that standard a full decade earlier, he said.
“We are not a leader when it comes to air quality, but instead fall in the back of the pack,” said Johnson, calling upon Pittsburgh residents to take collective ownership over this problem in order to solve it.
Keynote speaker Polly Hoppin, research professor and program director of the Environmental Health Program at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, laid out the process by which stakeholders in Massachusetts have been developing a roadmap for reducing asthma onset in the state through primary prevention measures. Among the considerations in the plan is the need to reduce outdoor air pollution, which was identified as a key risk factor for asthma.
David Diaz-Sanchez of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told conference-goers that the scientific evidence is clear that asthma is worsened by air pollution—and there is growing evidence that pollution can cause asthma. Asthmatics also breathe more, taking in more pollutants than people without the disease, which in turn, makes them more susceptible to other illnesses linked to poor air quality, he said.
Woodsmoke from residential heating—which accounts for 20 percent of fine particulate matter in Allegheny—poses a particularly serious health risk, according to speaker Curtis Noonan, associate professor of epidemiology at the Center of Environmental Sciences at the University of Montana. People with asthma are especially sensitive to the health impacts of woodsmoke, and Noonan said indoor air filters can be effective in reducing personal exposures. He likened the dangers from woodsmoke to the widely known effects of tobacco smoke, where public bans are acceptable and becoming the norm.
“It’s a behaviors that’s very hard to change and people feel very strongly about it,” Noonan said. “…It’s hard to believe that in this day and age we’re still burning wood when it affects the very susceptible populations in our communities.”