The official statistics on childhood asthma in Allegheny County are daunting: 26,000 kids, or almost 13 percent, are afflicted, significantly higher than the 8.4 percent rate nationwide.
The reality may be much worse.
As high as 1 in 4 underprivileged children living near smokestack pollution sources in the Clairton, Woodland Hills and Avonworth school districts have asthma, and another 10 percent are at risk of developing it, according to preliminary study results cited by Deborah Gentile, director of allergy and asthma clinical research at Pediatric Allergy, at a news conference Tuesday marking World Asthma Day.
“The link between pollution and asthma is well-established and has been for decades,” Dr. Gentile said, speaking in front of a massive mural depicting belching smokestacks and titled “Industry” in the Allegheny County Courthouse. “We need to make cleaning the air a priority for the future of the region and for our children.”
She said asthma is the No. 1 chronic reason children miss days at school, and their absences affect both their schoolwork and their ability to earn in the future.
“Asthma is an epidemic in our schools,” said Michelle Buford, educational program specialist at Healthy Schools Pennsylvania, “but it’s one that can be addressed and suppressed with funding for improvements to indoor spaces.”
Buford said half of all schools in the U.S. have poor air quality, and school districts should have strategies in place to address the problem, including high-quality air circulation systems, use of “green” cleaning products, regular walk-through inspections to identify poor air quality areas, better air intake filters, and teacher and staff training to handle asthma attacks.
Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution, and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said that despite recent improvements in air quality, more controls on pollutants and enforcement actions against pollution violators are needed.
“It is absolutely imperative that local regulators and policymakers do more to clean the air,” Ms. Filippini said. “A permit, regulation, contract or piece of legislation is only a piece of paper if our regulators aren’t willing to enforce them.”
Wagner noted that her office’s audit of the Allegheny County Health Department last year found deficiencies in its permitting and enforcement programs.
“The Health Department’s reliance on consent decrees allows polluters to write their own ticket,” she said. “If we want to be a progressive region, we have to own up to and solve these problems.”
Patrice Tomcik, a field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force, which organized the news conference, expressed concern that the Trump administration’s rollback of air quality rules would have a devastating impact on children in the Pittsburgh region, which once again was ranked in the top 10 most polluted metropolitan areas in the nation by the American Lung Association.
“Too many mothers already watch their children struggle to take a breath,” she said.