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The authors of the study, Dr. Deborah Gentile and Dr. Jennifer Elliott at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy, discovered that children exposed to the highest levels of air pollution had nearly double the risk of asthma diagnosis.
The doctors have been conducting asthma clinic visits in Clairton schools for several years. The Mon Valley city is home to Clairton Coke Works, which is owned by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel. Annually, the works produces more than 4 million tons of coke, a byproduct of coal-mining production.
Drs. Gentile and Elliot currently have 15 children in Clairton with mild to persistent asthma enrolled in their program. At their most recent visits on Nov. 28, 2018 and Dec. 12, 2018, all participants had their asthma under control.
But regularly scheduled asthma follow-ups conducted on Monday found that among the 14 of the 15 students present, five had worse lung function. Two of these students had increased use of albuterol rescue medication since school resumed in January, and both were placed on oral steroids to control their asthma.
An excessive amount of sulfur dioxide emissions has been documented in the Clairton area since a fire occurred at the coke facility on Dec. 24, 2018. Sulfur dioxide is known to exacerbate asthma.
The Clairton coke facility has a long history of environmental violations. U.S. Steel recently appealed an enforcement order they received from the Allegheny County Health Department in June 2018, which includes a $1 million fine and a provision requiring the company to address causes of its air pollution violations by the first half of 2019, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In October 2018, the company was fined another $620,316 for additional violations in the second quarter of 2018.
While about a third of the children living near the Clairton facility were suffering from elevated asthma in early January, nine other children enrolled in the asthma program in Hazelwood displayed no exacerbation in lung function.
“These results show a temporal relationship between [sulfur dioxide] exceedances and deteriorating asthma control in children residing near the Clairton [Coke Works] facility,” Dr. Gentile says in the press release. “These deteriorations are not due to other common asthma triggers since none of the children from Clairton had a recent viral respiratory illness and there is no outdoor pollen in the air. The absence of asthma deterioration in the Hazelwood cohort suggests that the local exceedances in [sulfur dioxide] from the Clairton Coke Works contributed to worsening asthma in those schoolchildren.”