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Northgate School District combats asthma triggers in children

Aaron Aupperlee
| Sunday, July 12, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Angela Garcia and her 10-year-old son Lucas, who suffers with asthma, clean and dust their Bellevue home on Saturday July 11, 2015. The Garcia family has a Hepa filter vacuum and other items to help clear the allergens in the home.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Angela Garcia and her 10-year-old son Lucas, who suffers with asthma, clean and dust their Bellevue home on Saturday July 11, 2015. The Garcia family has a Hepa filter vacuum and other items to help clear the allergens in the home.
Angela Garcia and her 10-year-old son Lucas at their Bellevue home on Saturday July 11, 2015. The Garcia family has a Hepa filter vacuum and other items to help clear the allergens in the home. Lucas' school district, Northgate, could benefit from an Allegheny County program which provides items to help children who suffer from asthma.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Angela Garcia and her 10-year-old son Lucas at their Bellevue home on Saturday July 11, 2015. The Garcia family has a Hepa filter vacuum and other items to help clear the allergens in the home. Lucas' school district, Northgate, could benefit from an Allegheny County program which provides items to help children who suffer from asthma.

When Angela Garcia's 10-year-old son was diagnosed with asthma, she bought an expensive vacuum with a specialty filter and ordered pricey mattress covers through the mail.

Her Bellevue home could be a little cleaner, she said, but it's close to spotless.

An Allegheny County Health Department program could help families in Northgate School District — which Garcia's son Lucas, 10, attends — combat asthma attack triggers in their homes.

“Those things are very important, and I think they could be a great benefit for some of our families,” Garcia, 41, said of the program, which aims to provide families with much of what she bought. “I'm grateful there are dollars available to help these kids sleep and breathe better.”

A hot zone for asthma in Allegheny County, Northgate has become the focus of programs and studies seeking ways to reduce the condition's effects.

Nearly 20 percent of Northgate's students have asthma, ranking it among the highest in the county, according to research provided by the Health Department. The district includes the municipalities of Avalon and Bellevue, which are downwind from Neville Island and along Route 65, home to the Shenango coke works and heavy diesel truck traffic.

The county Board of Health on Wednesday approved spending $337,600 from the Clean Air Fund to provide families in the district assistance in cleaning dust mites, animal dander, mold and pollutants that could trigger asthma attacks from their homes.

Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research in the Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at Allegheny General Hospital, began a pilot study last year among fifth-graders in Northgate to better understand measuring and tracking diagnoses among schoolchildren.

“We want to do what's best for our students,” Northgate Superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla said. “If we can get some information out that can help our kids, I think that's a positive.”

The Health Department has long focused on improving outdoor air quality in communities near Neville Island. Its latest project will address air quality inside students' houses, said Jayme Graham, the Health Department's Air Quality Program manager.

Qualifying families will receive a kit worth about $300 that contains items including a mop, a vacuum with a high-efficiency filter, cleaning supplies and mattress covers designed to trap allergens, Graham said. Families can apply for up to $1,500 for home improvements such as new carpet or mold removal.

Letters will go out to families in the district soon. Families with at least one child with asthma and who complete a survey can participate. A Health Department technician and educator will visit the house to work with the family.

“As we work on the outdoor air, let's improve the indoor air, too,” Graham said at a county Board of Health meeting Wednesday.

If the program shows a reduction in asthma attacks, it could expand to other districts — Sto-Rox, Clairton, Wilkinsburg — where asthma rates hover around 20 percent, Graham said.

“I think it is sensible, what they are doing. It will help,” Dr. Juan Celedón, head of pulmonary medicine, allergy and immunology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said of the Health Department's program. “They help, but they are not cure-alls.”

Celedón said indoor and outdoor air quality and many other factors, such as obesity, contribute to asthma. Medical research focused on outdoor air quality for many years but is starting to consider indoor factors and others, he said.

Gentile said her research will give health officials a better grasp on how many students in the county have asthma and how they are being treated. The Heinz Endowments awarded Gentile $415,000 to fund her work, which she piloted last year at Northgate and a few other districts.

At Northgate, Gentile interviewed about 40 fifth-graders whose families agreed to participate. More than half of the 40 had asthma. About six were diagnosed for the first time, she said.

This year, she is expanding her research to more grade levels.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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