By David Golebiewski
Even in football-crazed Western Pennsylvania—home to legends like Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Johnny Unitas—the Clairton Bears stand out. The Bears have won four straight Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association championships and carry the nation’s longest high-school football winning streak of 63 games into the 2013-14 season.
Clairton won’t win any accolades for air quality, however. Located in the heavily industrialized Mon Valley, the City of Clairton and four surrounding municipalities are out of attainment with federal standards for daily and annual fine particulate matter pollution.
“I know Clairton has some bad air issues because I live by the mills,” says Clairton Bears sophomore lineman Jhsia Miles, who suffers from asthma. “About two years ago, we put out white clothes to dry them outside. The clothes ended up with black stuff on them—that’s how bad the air was. We never did that again.”
Fine particulate matter, or “soot,” is a combination of very small particles and liquid droplets produced by sources such as burning fossil fuels for power generation, running construction and diesel vehicles and traffic. The smaller the particles, the more damaging they can be to our health, passing through the nose and throat and entering our bloodstream via the lungs. Particle pollution is a known trigger of asthma, a chronic lung disease characterized by a narrowing and inflammation of the airways.
“I try to control my breathing when I’m working out, but it’s just hard,” Miles says.
More young people like Miles are being diagnosed with asthma across the country in recent years, and the problem is even more severe in the Pittsburgh region.
In 2001, approximately 8.7 percent of children in the U.S. had asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey. By 2011, an estimated 9.5 percent of children had the disease. In Allegheny County, the prevalence of asthma among children has jumped from 9.2 percent during the 2001-2002 school year to 11.8 percent in 2010-2011, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
And the burden isn’t shared equally. Asthma disproportionately affects African-American children (16.3 percent nationally) and those who live below the federal poverty threshold (12.5 percent), the CDC says.
It’s a problem known all-too-well by the football players at Clairton Middle and High School, one of the smallest and poorest in the state. A quarter of Clairton residents live below the poverty level—more than double the state average—and 18.2 percent of students in the school district have been diagnosed with asthma. The size of Clairton’s African-American population (37.6 percent) is more than three times the state average (10.8 percent), according to the U.S. Census.
“A lot of people in my community face problems like drug use and violence, and the air has been killing our community for a very long time, too,” Bears junior lineman Israel Melvin says. “I want someone to finally do something about it. We need to do something about it—quick.”
District spokeswoman Alexis Trubiani estimates that eight to 10 Bears players last season had asthma on a roster of 42–roughly 25 percent of the team. On the field, Clairton head coach Tom Nola and athletic trainer Tammy Ridgley take steps to limit their players’ breathing problems.
“For the kids that have asthma, we make sure they always have their puffer,” Nola says. “If they’re struggling during sprints, we tell them to take it easy. It’s just being smart with them.”
Ridgley has Nola change practice times and adjust the players’ running schedules when it is really hot and air pollution levels are high.
“After players take their physicals, we know which players have breathing problems like asthma,” she says. “I monitor the ones that doctors have diagnosed with asthma, making sure they always have their inhalers.”
Such precautions allow players such as Will Hampton, a junior lineman, to suit up. Hampton has outgrown the asthma he had as a child, when he remembers waking up in the middle of the night wheezing and being rushed to the ER for medication. But he still experiences breathing troubles on days when the air quality is especially poor.
“I started playing football last year,” he says. “Being at the stadium, running, doing our drills—it’s hard to breathe on those hot days because the air’s so bad. As far as our drills, Coach Nola might change it up a little to make sure we’re alright and don’t pass out. We also have Miss Tammy out there keeping us safe.”
Safe and strong. The Bears are looking forward to hopefully continuing their extraordinary winning streak this season with another one for the record books—and to a clean-air future both on and off the gridiron.
“My little brother has asthma, too—he’s five,” Miles says. “I think the air problems might have something to do with it. If we can clean up their air around here, it’s better for everybody.”
— David Golebiewski is a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon University’s Professional Writing program, studying public relations, marketing and communications. A lifelong Pittsburgher, David plans to pursue career opportunities in the health care and nonprofit sectors.