Prove your humanity

Even moderate amounts of air pollution increase the number of children going to emergency rooms for asthma in Allegheny County, a new study finds. 

The study looked at the Air Quality Index in Pittsburgh from 2010 to 2018. The index was created by the federal EPA to translate air quality data for specific pollutants into a color-coded system. 

Study author Franziska Rosser, a pediatric pulmonologist with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said even ‘yellow’ days, where the Air Quality Index is ‘moderate’ and within federal air quality standards, caused an uptick in ER visits. 

“During our study period, half of the days were in the moderate range here in Pittsburgh,” Rosser said. “Yes, this is below the EPA [guidelines], but if you’re somebody that’s sensitive in those yellow days, there’s a lot of yellow days in Pittsburgh.”

Rosser said the study shows that parents and doctors can use the Air Quality Index, which is displayed on the EPA’s Airnow.gov website, as an early warning system for children with asthma. Green designates a good air quality day, then increasing air pollution levels are yellow, orange, red, purple and maroon. 

“It might be that you notice that it’s not in the orange zone (when) your child might start having symptoms, but even in the yellow zone,” Rosser said.  “To me, the results demonstrate that there are at least some children who live within the county who could be considered unusually sensitive to air pollution.”  

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Benefits of the Air Quality Index

Sheryl Magzamen, associate professor of environmental health at Colorado State University, said the paper adds to an already extensive understanding that pollution triggers asthma. 

Magzamen, who was not involved with the study, said while most studies focus on obscure monitoring data only available to scientists and experts, this study the much more accessible Air Quality Index.

“You don’t need to be able to access the EPA website. You can just look on your phone and understand what the air quality is for the day,” Magzamen said. “And potentially, if it’s in that moderate or hazardous level or above that, you and your family can take steps to prevent potential exacerbations of chronic diseases.”

Black children most affected

The study, which appears in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, found that Black children and children 6 to 11 were affected the most by increased air pollution levels, and that particle pollution was the pollutant most directly associated with increased ER visits. 

Earlier this year, for the first time ever, Allegheny County met federal air quality standards at all of its air pollution monitors. But that designation may be temporary. The EPA may tighten  its standards on particulate matter later this year, after its own scientific panel recommended stricter standards.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.