Researchers breathe easy


The connection between pollution and asthma has always been a little cloudy, but with a recent… The connection between pollution and asthma has always been a little cloudy, but with a recent grant, Pitt might be able to clear up some unanswered questions.

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded Pitt a $2.2 million grant to help local agencies search for links between pollution and various chronic diseases.

The CDC granted money for four public health schools across the country to help link various health databases on chronic diseases and to eventually conduct independent research as well.

Pitt used this grant, spaced out over five years, to create a center called the University of Pittsburgh Academic Partner of Excellence for Environmental Public Health Tracking.

“Chronic diseases” that the Center will be tracking include asthma, birth defects and infant mortality, as well as a long list of others.

Evelyn Talbott, a professor of Epidemiology at the Graduate School for Public Health and co-director of the new center, said that there is a lot of work to do in rounding up this information.

“There is data out there, but it is very disjointed,” Talbott said. “There is no way right now to take these databases and link them.”

The Center’s job is to create a network of health data and work with local agencies such as the Allegheny County Health Department and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health.

“We see ourselves as chefs, trying to build this infrastructure out of all these parts. It’s kind of like soup,” Talbott said.

“You can sort of picture what CDC wants to do and it’s a tall order,” Talbott said.

That’s why Pitt recruited professionals from the Epidemiology, Biostatistics and the Center for Environmental Oncology among others.

“It takes a lot of people to build a village, it also takes a lot of people to do this,” Talbott said.

CDC’s grant gives Pitt a unique opportunity to study the results of air pollution in the area, and with Pittsburgh’s industrial history, the Center will have a lot of material.

Jeanne Zborowski, the other director of the center, listed some of the products of Pittsburgh’s industrial legacy.

“We have a lot of brown fields, we have a lot of abandoned industrial sites that we are reclaiming,” she said.

Talbott cited the “Donora Smog,” a 1948 toxic cloud from the Donora Zinc Works site that was linked to hundreds of deaths in the region, for sparking public interest in how pollution affects health.

“It alerted the U.S. population to the possible health risks of environmental exposure,” Talbott said.

Zborowski explained that Pittsburgh’s problems are not unique, since emissions and other pollutants can travel hundreds of miles.

“A lot of these environmental problems aren’t regional. They don’t just affect Pittsburgh. It’s air pollution, so it affects a much larger area,” Zborowski said.

This is why agencies from across the country can network with Pitt’s new center to help catalogue and record their pollution levels.

“So it makes sense for people to be partnering with academic centers across the country,” Zborowski said about Pitt.

Zborowski and Talbott agree that there is a possibility of graduate internships throughout the project, and are looking to use their research to help educate students.

“If there are any grad students out there interested in this, we would consider possible internships,” Zborowski said.

Mark White, an epidemiologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Health and director of the state’s asthma in schools project, said in a press release that this new grant will further his program’s research.

“Because of limited resources, we’ve only been able to conduct detailed asthma surveillance in a few school districts with the very highest reported rates of asthma in the state,” White wrote.

“GSPH’s grant will provide significantly more resources for looking at more schools, particularly in the western part of the state.”

For Talbott and Zborowski, the center’s eventual goal is clear to them, even at this early stage.

“The whole idea is to reduce disease related to environmental exposure, then work toward solving the environmental problems too,” Zborowski said.

Talbott borrowed a line from physicist Albert Einstein when she paraphrased their mission.

“I’m saying that intellectuals solve problems but public health officials work toward preventing them,” Talbott said.