Asthma rate prompts a look at air quality

One in four Braddock children suffer from the affliction

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Asthma never nabbed Eleanor Joscak's children.

The Joscaks have lived in the Braddock area for 54 years. Although five boys and a girl grew up in plain sight of the fire-breathing Edgar Thompson Works steel mill, none contracted the disease.

Today, with smokestack scrubbers at work, the air around Braddock is cleaner than when the Joscak children were at home.

"It's a lot better," Mrs. Joscak said. "I'm not saying 100 percent, but a lot better."

Still, a recent Children's Hospital survey says one in four school-age or younger children in Braddock has contracted asthma. The survey looked at families with young children and teens in Braddock as well as Turtle Creek and Wilkinsburg and the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Mount Oliver, the North Side, the Hill District, Oakland, Lawrenceville and Bloomfield.

So why does asthma strike in Braddock so frequently? Is the problem caused by ancient dust filtering into the living spaces of Braddock homes, some as old as 100 years or more? Is it pet dandruff? Tobacco smoke?

"We can't really say what the cause is," said Rachel Fillipini, executive director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, better known as GASP. There is "the steel mill, but we also have diesel trucks coming through constantly."

Topographically, the borough sits low, thus, polluted air can linger, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman said. Fumes from passing slag trucks add to the problem. And, a quarter-mile away, diesel-driven towboats puff up and down the Monongahela River.

In an effort to quantify air particles, Ms. Fillipini and Bridget Yupcavage, education coordinator for GASP, carried out a demonstration project in four Braddock sites last month.

Although the unscientific observation covered just a few days' time and centered on Braddock, its findings were eye-opening.

Ms. Fillipini and Ms. Yupcavage used a TSI SidePak AM 510, a $3,200 instrument the size of a paperback book that uses laser light flashes to count nearly invisible particles swirling in the air. It can register particles as small as 0.1 micron in diameter. Ms. Fillipini set it for 2.5 microns. That's one-fortieth the thickness of a human hair, said Roger Westman, the Allegheny County Health Department air quality program manager.

Particles that small are "likely to be passed down into the lungs," Mr. Westman said. "[Medical] doctors tell me that the upper respiratory system is [more] capable of expelling particles larger than that."

Currently, the acceptable annual federal standard for concentrations of particles that tiny is 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air. For a 24-hour period, the government says, an average of 65 micrograms per cubic meter is also safe.

The findings in the GASP project were "excessively high," Ms. Yupcavage said.

First, Ms. Fillipini took the machine to the Michlovic family home on Wood Avenue, less than a block from the Joscaks'. There, from July 6 until July 10, the SidePak measured an average of 79 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Hour-upon-hour readings indicated that peak concentration periods occurred throughout the day. Particles drifting through the upstairs window at 32 Wood reached an average of 102 micrograms per cubic meter of air from 7:37 to 8:37 a.m. July 9.

Next, the monitor sat in a window at the Good Shepherd Catholic School. About 200 pupils from kindergarten to eighth grade attend during the school year. A session with fewer pupils occurs during the summer.

Placed in a window at the Braddock Avenue school for four days, from July 10 to July 13, the machine detected an average of 137 micrograms per cubic meter of air over the four days.

But, from 3 to 4 p.m. July 10, the SidePak registered 159 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The next site was an upstairs window in a vacant Holland Avenue house, about a block from UPMC Braddock. There, the machine registered an average of 146 micrograms per cubic meter of air over the period from July 13 through July 17. But, from 11:58 a.m. to 12:58 p.m. on July 13, it ticked off 111 micrograms per cubic meter.

The last stop was the 4 Kids Learning Center playground in Braddock. Situated in the playground for nearly two hours, the SidePak figured that the average particle flow for two hours matched the federal government's safety standard for a 24-hour period. On July 17, from 12:43 to 2:30 p.m., the time the children usually go out to play, the average concentration was 65 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

Barbara Willard, a vice president with Heritage Health Foundation Inc., the company that owns the day-care center, said up to 120 children, 6 weeks to 9 years old, are enrolled.

"Because they are so young, we have looked at that issue," she said. Meggan M. McCann, the director at the school, said 15 of the children had been diagnosed with asthma.

To combat asthma among Braddock children, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh launched a mobile medical unit in March to diagnose and begin treating youngsters with respiratory troubles.

Over four months, Children's Hospital personnel visited all three Woodland Hills intermediate schools. Woodland Hills serves children in the east suburbs, including the Braddock area.

Program Manager Cheryl Krause, a respiratory therapist, said 80 percent, or 43 of the 54 pupils tested, have asthma. Among the group were 19 Braddock-area children.

About 71 percent of the children received prescription medicine to manage asthmatic episodes. All were referred to primary care physicians for continued attention, Ms. Krause said.

UPMC Braddock also has begun a screening/treatment project, but it targets asthmatic adults, not children, chief physician Dr. Kelly Close said. Soon, she said, the program will partner with Children's Hospital to reach more children in Braddock.

M. Ferguson Tinsley can be reached at or 412-263-1455.


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