Allegheny County Board of Health approves $300K for asthma study, $90K for trees |
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Jamie Martines

Doctors and researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and UPMC Children’s Hospital received a $300,000 grant from the Allegheny County Clean Air Fund to create a registry tracking pediatric asthma.

The Allegheny County Board of Health approved the disbursement from the nearly $12 million fund at a meeting Wednesday.

Over 10% of hospitalizations at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh are related to asthma, said Dr. Liz Miller, chief of its division of adolescent and young adult medicine.

“Asthma should really never have to be treated in an emergency room setting, and certainly much less a child’s hospitalization,” Miller told the board of health. “That is an indication that we as a system … we’re frankly, failing our children.”

A similar registry focused on adult cases of asthma was tapped following the Dec. 24 fire at the Clairton Coke Works to study how unusually high levels of sulfur dioxide affected asthma patients.

It showed that adult asthma patients living within 10 miles of the plant reported experiencing more frequent attacks in the weeks immediately following the fire, along with the need to increase medication use, like an inhaler.

Doctors and researchers creating the pediatric registry will partner with families to collect real-time data related to flare-ups of asthma symptoms and to better understand how families are treating asthma in children, Miller said.

They’ll also study how where a child lives or spends most of their time — whether they travel around the region for school or activities or to visit relatives, for example — impacts their asthma symptoms.

“You’ve got access to health care, you’ve got health literacy issues, you’ve got ‘can I afford my medications?’ — All of those things come into play,” said Dr. Sally Wenzel, department chair of the environmental and occupational health department at the Pitt School of Public Health, who also administers the adult asthma registry.

About 12% of children and 10% of adults in Allegheny County have asthma, on par with state figures, according to data from the Allegheny County Health Department.

Twice as many black adults in Allegheny County have asthma compared to their white peers, according to the data.

The pediatric registry project will be supported by the health department’s Asthma Task Force, which also has been studying the root causes of asthma in the county, health department director Karen Hacker said.

Money in the health department’s Clean Air Fund is raised when polluters pay penalties over emissions violations.

Disbursements can be used to fund projects, like the pediatric asthma registry, that are related to improving air quality, according to the fund website.

As of April 30, there was more than $11.9 million in the fund, according to figures provided by the health department.

The board of health also approved a $90,000 disbursement from the fund to the Allegheny County Parks Department on Wednesday.

Those funds will be used to purchase 360 mature trees to be planted in parks throughout the county in an effort to replace the canopy that has been lost in recent years due to development, pests and diseases.

Tree purchases will be bid out by the parks department, said Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health.

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