Study of Local Schoolchildren Reveals “Alarming” Rates of Uncontrolled Asthma, Exposure to Industrial Point Sources of Air Pollution



Disease is uncontrolled for nearly 60% of study participants already diagnosed with asthma; 39% of participants exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution particulates set by the EPA  

A landmark study on asthma prevalence in Pittsburgh-area schoolchildren living near sources of industrial point pollution includes several findings deemed “alarming and unacceptable,” according to a presentation today on the research by Deborah Gentile, MD, from the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology for Pediatric Alliance. Dr. Gentile shared her conclusions at “The Air We Breathe: A Regional Summit on Asthma in Our Community” sponsored by Allegheny Health Network (AHN) and The Breathe Project of The Heinz Endowments. The event was held at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.

The research on more than 1,200 local elementary school students discovered:

  • Nearly 39 percent of schoolchildren in the study were exposed to unhealthy levels of outdoor air pollution above the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while almost 71 percent of the students were exposed to levels above the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • More than 22 percent of the study participants had physician-diagnosed asthma, but the asthma was uncontrolled for nearly 60 percent of those students.
  • Children from eight school systems exposed to the highest levels of PM2.5 from industrial sources had 1.6 times the risk of an asthma diagnosis.
  • There was a nearly 5 times greater prevalence of uncontrolled asthma linked to outdoor air pollution, but not to other triggers such as obesity and environmental tobacco smoke exposure,   after adjustment for demographics of gender, race, and poverty.

“Childhood asthma is a major public health concern, and the results of this study leave no doubt that air pollution from industrial point sources plays a role in the high incidence of childhood asthma in the Pittsburgh region,” said Dr. Gentile, who led the research from 2014 to 2016 while serving as Director of Allergy and Asthma Clinical Research for AHN. “The rates of childhood asthma and, even worse, uncontrolled asthma are alarming and unacceptable, and they must be addressed.”

The asthma prevalence rate of 22.5 percent among the students evaluated is more than double the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s statewide figure of 10.2 percent for children and the federal rate of 8.6 percent for children, according to the CDC. An Allegheny County Department of Health survey for 2015-2016 found that 15.1 percent of adults in the county have a history of asthma.

Dr. Gentile noted that schools volunteered to participate based on their proximity to industrial point sources of air pollution and that approximately 68 percent of eligible children elected to participate. 

Participating schools included: Clairton, located near the Clairton coke works facility; Northgate, near the former Shenango plant; Allegheny Valley, near the Cheswick power plant; Gateway, near the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange in Monroeville; and Woodland Hills, Environmental Charter School, Waldorf, and Propel Hazelwood, all of which are located near the Braddock steel mill. 

“While the results of this study are troubling for the health and well-being of area students, they are, sadly, also not entirely surprising,” said Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment and a Summit attendee. “We now need to explore how we can best work to reverse these numbers locally – and how our research can translate to other cities facing similar problems.”

Joining Dr. Gentile in the study were David Skoner, MD, former Director of the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at AHN; as well as Jennifer Elliott, PharmD, from Duquesne University’s Mylan School of Pharmacy; Albert Presto, PhD, from Carnegie Mellon University; and representatives from the American Lung Association.

About The Breathe Project:

The Breathe Project, a co-sponsor of the Asthma Summit and funder of this study, works to promote clean air and inspire healthy communities across southwestern Pennsylvania. The best available science is used to understand the quality of the air we breathe, build public awareness and improve community health and wellness.

About Pediatric Alliance:

Pediatric Alliance was formed in 1996, when eight individual pediatric practices joined forces to provide quality health care throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania.  Since then, Pediatric Alliance has grown to be the largest physician owned group pediatric practice in our area.  Our board certified pediatricians offer primary care to children and adolescents in 17 different office locations including two specialty care offices for asthma, allergy and immunology and pediatric endocrinology.

About the Allegheny Health Network:

Allegheny Health Network (, a Highmark Health company, is an integrated healthcare delivery system serving the greater Western Pennsylvania region.  The Network is composed of eight hospitals, including Allegheny General Hospital, its flagship academic medical center in Pittsburgh, Allegheny Valley Hospital in Natrona Heights, Canonsburg Hospital in Canonsburg, Forbes Hospital in Monroeville, Jefferson Hospital in Jefferson Hills, Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie, West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh and Westfield Memorial Hospital in Westfield, NY.  The Network provides patients with access to a complete spectrum of advanced medical services, including nationally recognized programs for primary and emergency care, cardiovascular disease, cancer care, orthopedic surgery, neurology and neurosurgery, women’s health, diabetes and more.  It also is home to a comprehensive research institute; Health + Wellness Pavilions; an employed physician organization, home and community based health services and a group purchasing organization. The Network employs approximately 17,000 people, has more than 2,800 physicians on its medical staff and serves as a clinical campus for Drexel University College of Medicine, Temple University School of Medicine, and the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.