While the Pittsburgh region has made great strides in controlling air pollution, tiny specks of pollution known as particulates continue to pose health problems. The American Allergy and Asthma Foundation ranks Pittsburgh as the fourth most challenging place to live with asthma, and Pittsburgh-area school districts Northgate and Clairton rank among the worst in the state for the number of students diagnosed with asthma.
Researchers Arvind Venkat, MD, Vice Chair for Research and Faculty Academic Affairs, Department of Emergency Medicine at the West Penn Allegheny Health System and Deborah Gentile, MD, Director of Research in the WPAHS Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said they expect the results will show a strong relationship between levels of outdoor air pollution and asthma flare-ups. While the relationship has been studied on a broader scale, it has not yet been examined on a local level.
“Environmental factors may play an important role in triggering acute asthma attacks,” Dr. Venkat said. “Pittsburgh is considered a challenging place to live with asthma based on several risk factors including exposure to tobacco smoke and air pollution, ozone days, medication use and poverty rates.”
“An acute asthma attack can include symptoms such as severe shortness of breath and wheezing that do not respond to home treatment. It can be frightening and is not to be taken lightly,” Dr. Gentile said. “A severe asthma attack can even be fatal if not treated promptly.”
The results of the study will be used as a starting point to determine the best interventions for people at risk of acute asthma attacks due to environmental factors.
Study participants will be recruited from patients presenting with an acute asthma exacerbation at one of Allegheny Health’s hospitals based in Allegheny County: Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side, West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville and Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison Township.
Two control groups will also be studied: People with stable asthma presenting for a routine checkup with Dr. Gentile, and family members or others who accompany the person experiencing an acute asthma attack to the emergency room, and are exposed to the same environment as the patient.
Data collected by the researchers will include measurement of the asthma patients’ fractional exhaled nitrous oxide (FeNO), a marker of airway inflammation in asthma, as well as other demographic and clinical data. The data will be combined with local weather and pollution data over the preceding seven days to construct a model for the relationship between airway inflammation, airborne pollution and acute asthma exacerbations.
Over the next 12 months 106 study participants ages 7 through 45 will be recruited, including 40 patients suffering acute asthma exacerbations. It’s anticipated that 50 percent of the participants will be either minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged or young. Thus the study will help directly address the issue of health disparities in western Pennsylvania as well, Drs. Venkat and Gentile said.
The project is funded by Breathe Pennsylvania, a local lung health advocacy and education organization, and through the Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement Program, Health Research Formula Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
About the Allegheny Health Network:
The Allegheny Health Network is a patient-centric integrated healthcare delivery system serving the Western Pennsylvania region. The Network is comprised of the five hospitals of the West Penn Allegheny Health System (Allegheny General Hospital, Allegheny Valley Hospital, Canonsburg General Hospital, Forbes Regional Hospital and The Western Pennsylvania Hospital), Jefferson Regional Medical Center and a soon to open medical mall in Wexford, PA. The Network employs more than 1,200 physicians representing every medical discipline.