Kids in Clairton are experiencing decreased lung function following the Clairton Coke Works fire

Kids in Clairton are experiencing decreased lung function following the Clairton Coke Works fire

The region remains under a health advisory due to high levels of sulfur dioxide pollution.

PITTSBURGH—Three weeks after a Christmas Eve fire at U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works plant resulted in levels of sulfur dioxide in the air that exceed Clean Air Act standards for safety, a local physician has observed an increase in asthma exacerbations among elementary school students who live near the plant.


On January 9, residents of 22 Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods were advised by the Allegheny County Health Department to minimize outdoor activity after sulfur dioxide pollution had exceeded clean air regulation standards six times.

Sulfur dioxide exposure causes a number of respiratory issues and is a known asthma trigger. According to the Allegheny County Health Department's data, the air monitor closest to the plant detected sulfur dioxide at 145 parts per billion (ppb) on December 28—nearly double the maximum hourly safety threshold of 75 ppb.

Dr. Deborah Gentile, whose previous research has revealed a childhood asthma epidemic linked to air pollution in Pittsburgh, regularly monitors lung function and asthma control in a group of students at Clairton Elementary school as part of an innovative in-school asthma management clinic.

When Gentile checked on Clairton students for a regularly-scheduled clinic on January 14, 2019, she reported that 36 percent of the students participating in the program had a significant decrease in lung function (14 of the 15 students participating in the program were in attendance).

How in-school asthma screenings in Pittsburgh can help kids catch their breathyoutu.be

None of the students reported having a recent respiratory viral illness, which could cause similar symptoms.

Two of the students had documented increased use of albuterol rescue medication since school resumed in January, and both of these students were placed on oral steroids to control their worsening asthma.

In comparison, Dr. Gentile reported that there was no decrease in lung function among the nine enrolled in the same asthma program in Hazelwood, which is not one of the 22 neighborhoods included in the health advisory.

"These results show a temporal relationship between SO2 exceedances and deteriorating asthma control in children residing near the Clairton cokes facility," said Dr. Gentile in a press statement.

"These deteriorations are not due to other common asthma triggers since none of the children from Clairton had a recent viral respiratory illness and there is no outdoor pollen in the air. The absence of asthma deterioration in the Hazelwood cohort suggests that the local exceedances in SO2 from the Clairton Coke Works contributed to worsening asthma in those schoolchildren."

The health advisory, which remains in effect and urges residents to "limit outdoor activities until further notice," includes the neighborhoods of Braddock, Clairton, Dravosburg, Duquesne, East McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Elizabeth Borough, Elizabeth Township, Forward, Glassport, Jefferson Hills, Liberty, Lincoln, McKeesport, North Braddock, North Versailles, Pleasant Hills, Port Vue, Versailles, Wall, West Elizabeth and West Mifflin.

Become a donor
Today's top news
From our newsroom

Peter Dykstra: With Ian, treat climate like an 'active shooter'

And let’s treat climate deniers as accomplices.

Chemicals linked to birth defects are being dumped in Pittsburgh’s rivers: Report

Chemicals linked to cancer and developmental harm are also released in large quantities into the city’s three rivers.

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Industry says chemical recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis, but environmental advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

Universities are failing us

Our educational systems are failing to prepare people for existential environmental threats

Peter Dykstra: The good news that gets buried by the bad

On the environment beat, maybe it’s right that the bad news dominates. But the good news is out there, too.