By Jennifer Elliott
The recent American Lung Association (ALA) report that gave Pittsburgh an F grade for air quality was a loud signal that the city, and the state for that matter, has a long way to go to improve air quality for all Pennsylvanians.
Improving our air is a must. Yet there are steps we can take now to counter the negative health effects that come with poor air quality. One of the most effective actions would be to mandate asthma screenings for all school children in the state.
Studies have shown that air pollution, among other triggers, can worsen asthma symptoms, and both Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania scored poorly on the ALA’s 2019 State of the Air report. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Johnstown-Somerset were all Pennsylvania regions listed in the report’s top 25 for most polluted areas by “year-round particulate pollution.”
Pennsylvania has the second highest percentage of children suffering from asthma in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A 2017 Allegheny Health Network study found that of more than 1,200 western Pennsylvania school children, 24 percent suffered from asthma, as compared to the national average of 8.3 percent as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics.
In my work in the Pittsburgh region, I’ve screened thousands of students for asthma and personally seen how the disease affects parents and their children. The impact on their lives is significant.
Asthma is one of the top reasons for missed school days, causing students to not only fall behind in their classes but also miss opportunities to socially interact with peers, take on an active lifestyle or participate in sports. Without treatment, these children face an uphill battle to keep up with their fellow students.
The situation is direr for people living in underserved communities, where access to health services can be spotty or non-existent. Some groups of children, specifically African-American children and those on public insurance, have a significantly higher prevalence of the disease and poorer disease control.
In many cases, parents aren’t aware that their child is suffering from asthma. In previous studies, we’ve found that approximately 15 percent of parents may not even know that their children have the disease. This in turn leads to trouble sleeping at night, limited activity, missed school days and unnecessary emergency room visits.
School-mandated asthma screenings would help to identify these problems early and ultimately improve student health and educational outcomes. Schools which have integrated asthma screenings as part of their back-to-school physicals are seeing excellent results.
For the first time, the Clairton, Northgate and Woodland Hills school districts and Propel-Hazelwood charter school implemented asthma screenings as part of their back-to-school process this past fall with help from Duquesne University. Since then, more than 1,000 students were screened and those identified with undiagnosed or uncontrolled disease were connected to care.
If the state were to mandate asthma screenings, it would be a smooth process. Parents simply complete a four-question survey that helps identify if their child has asthma and if so, if it was controlled by medication. The school location ensures that all children, even those without convenient access to health care, can be screened and identified early.
By mandating asthma school screenings, we can improve the health of our children and establish a foundation for students to excel in school and in life. There’s no reason to wait on mandating school-based asthma screenings.
Dr. Jennifer Elliott is an associate professor of pharmacy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.