PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Heinz Endowments has given researchers $415,000 to study whether asthma rates among Pittsburgh Public Schools students are as bad as school nurses say.
As many as half of the district's 26,000 students use rescue inhalers or are otherwise dealing with asthma, the nurses estimate.
Allegheny General Hospital researchers announced the study Monday and say they hope to pinpoint childhood asthma rates in the city and what's triggering such cases - no matter what the real numbers turn out to be.
One of the researchers, Dr. David Skoner, calls the 50 percent estimate "hard to believe" but not impossible.
"If that 50 percent number in Pittsburgh is real, it means we have some real problems related to air quality," Skoner said.
Starting this month, the researchers will begin tracking 150 fifth-graders from three city schools. The researchers will use questionnaires and breathing tests to determine which of the students have asthma, then examine school for conditions that contribute to the condition, including mold, dusty carpets and air pollution.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health in 2012 ranked Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, as the sixth-worst in the state for emergency room visits due to asthma, with a rate of 21 visits per 10,000 residents. That same report said 12.1 percent of county students had been diagnosed with asthma during the 2008-09 school year, and Skoner said anecdotal evidence suggests things have gotten worse since then.
The Allegheny County Health Department estimated that 17 percent of black residents had asthma compared with 9 percent of whites in 2009-10, the most recent figures available. More than half of Pittsburgh Public Schools students are black.
The county's asthma rates - which are higher than the statewide rate - are largely driven by smoking and air pollution, despite successful efforts to clean up Pittsburgh's air in recent decades, said Dr. Deborah Gentile, director of research at Allegheny General's Division of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
"We support Dr. Gentile's research as another important indicator of the critical need for all of us in this region to work together to protect the health of one of our most vulnerable groups, our children," said Robert Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments.
Chagit Sacks, 40, said she's hoping the research will help children like her son, Eli, 15, who was diagnosed with asthma when he was 8.
"It stopped me from playing sports and going to school at points, so it has changed my outlook," said Eli, a sophomore at Taylor Allderdice High School. "Now I am much more grateful. Right now I'm at a point where I can play basketball, where last year I couldn't."
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