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CHEC Past Projects

AtHome | Autism | CAST | OGs | State of Environmental Health

Autism & Heavy Metal Exposure (w/Children's Institute, Pittsburgh, PA)

Dr. Volz was Co-Principal Investigator for a project to determine if there was any connection between heavy metal exposures, particularly associated with coal fired plant energy production, & autism &/or autism exacerbations. This study investigated the environment of Western Pennsylvania & its effect on the neurological development of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. 

The first portion of the study consisted of creating a database of domicile, clinical & laboratory information on children followed by the Neurodevelopmental Service at the Children’s Institute.  The sites of potential pollution affecting children in Western PA were documented, utilizing public sources of information.  The PI reviewed the trends of this data, searching for commonalities of clinical & laboratory presentation in relation to patient domicile. 

The second portion of this study described the stack emissions from the coal-fired Shippingsport power plant in 2006 & 2007.  The locations of exposure to the plumes were determined, along with downwind exposure patterns occurring over subsequent weeks.  Children with a form of autism or other Neurodevelopmental Disability followed at The Children’s Institute who live under or downwind of the plume had their charts carefully examined for signs of deterioration in clinical status post exposure. The case histories of these children was carefully recorded.  A summary of these cases, lacking all identifying information, was created in order to denote a view of medical effects from the exposures.  Selected children had measures of their immunological & metalloprotein functioning determined, & hair, nail, & urine studies done to ascertain whether they have difficulty eliminating heavy metals from their bodies. The specific duties of CHEC in this study were:

  1. Assist the Children’s Institute through its Principal Investigator (PI) with design of the study & hypothesis to be tested, particularly with aspects concerned with coal fired plant emissions, wastewater & waste coal & flyash.
  2. Research the placement locations of flyash piles throughout Southwestern PA, obtain geographic coordinates & depict on Arc View Program layer. Assist PI in determining if proximity to flyash exposure through water or air exposure could affect autism-exacerbations.
  3. Attempt to obtain priority pollutant monitoring data from Allegheny County Health Department & PA Department of Environmental Resources. Also attempt to obtain samples of the actual PM10 & 2.5 filters for subsequent analysis by Dr. Kingston’s group at Duquesne University for an agreed upon suite of metals. Assist in the layering of this information on Arc View Maps.
  4. Model plume releases from the Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingsport under “normal” conditions of release & release when oil discharge is present. Do a Department of Environmental Resources (DEP) file review to determine industry-DEP data on content of plume releases during the “mist” release phase. Compile a report on what is generally known about plume releases from this plant including its rated output, burn temperature, any isokinetic stack samples & data on releases in the period from 2006-2007.
  5. Assist the PI & Research Coordinator in developing a survey instrument to be given to caretakers of children selected for more detailed environmental exposure & clinical history.
  6. Advise the PI about evaluatory methods & investigate all potential variables of the clinical setting that could be compared against found pollution variables for possible correlation.
  7. Assist the PI in the formulation of reports to the Heinz Endowments as required & also participate in production of a manuscript or manuscripts following the description &/or correlation of clinical & environmental work
  8. Work with the PI’s assistant & Co-PI Dr. Skip Kingston, Duquesne as required for the successful outcome of the project.

Participating CHEC Graduate Students

  • Drew Michanowicz — Second Year MPH Student, Risk Assessment Certificate Candidate, GSPH
  • Kyle Ferrar — First Year MPH Student, Risk Assessment Certificate Candidate, GSPH
  • Christy Lawson — DrPH student, Epidemiology, MPH student, Biostatistics, & Special Topics, GSPH

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The CAST: A University - High School Urban Community Collaborative Learning Experience

The CAST (College After School Team) is a program that allows university students to participate in an after-school program for high school students at a local urban high school.

The CAST provides a framework wherein university students can collaborate with high school students on projects related to school, community, & environmental issues impacting health, well-being, & achievement. The program should appeal to university students interested in a variety of fields, including medicine, social work, public health, environmental studies, urban studies, & education.

While engaged in group learning processes & projects, university students also serve as role models & exert positive peer pressure to prepare the high school students they work with for college. More broadly, the CAST aims to help high school & university students alike learn how to take control of their lives, engage in improving their communities & environments, become leaders & agents of change, & move towards positive futures.

University students working with the CAST program are expected to form meaningful mentoring relationships with high school students. At the onset of the program, university students receive training in effective mentoring, in working in groups, &, with Earth Force, in a problem-solving process for approaching community & environmental problems. The CAST then meets at Peabody High School on Fridays from 2 to 5 PM during the academic year. Besides the Friday sessions, university students in the program also spend 2 additional hours per week, arranged at their own convenience, working on projects with high school students.

Examples of potential projects (from Fall 2004) include:

  • Air pollution monitoring project (with GASP: Group Against Smog & Pollution)
  • Organizing & training a core of "youth ambassadors" for pregnancy prevention (with the East Liberty Family Health Care Center)
  • Male Responsibility & Leadership Project (with Healthy Start)
  • Learning about international food issues, including nutritional aspects thereof (with nutrition specialists)
  • A study on school cafeteria food & nutrition (with nutrition specialists)
  • An energy audit of the high school building (with Conservation Consultants)
  • Community gardening & renovation of a community center (with the Union Project)
  • Developing an educational puppet show on lead poisoning for pre-schoolers (with Healthy Homes Resources)
  • An exploration of stereotypes in rap music (with the possibility of recording at the Computer Clubhouse)
  • Making a documentary film about The CAST program itself (with a professional filmmaker)

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The Original Gardeners (OGs): A Summer Neighborhood Greening Project

By involving urban high school students in community building, the Original Gardeners (OGs) Project benefits the community, high school students, & the university & its students.  This collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments & Communities (CHEC) & Healcrest Community Farm is an extension of CHEC’s College After School Team (CAST) program, which runs through the school year at Peabody High.

Over 8 weeks for an average of 20 hours per week, 10 high school students participate in a variety of activities:

  • Working on a community urban farm in a nearby neighborhood
  • Completing senior projects, under the guidance of staff & University of Pittsburgh graduate student mentors
  • Keeping track of learning experiences through daily journaling
  • Attending educational field trips to locations such as Nine Mile Run & Frick Environmental Center, covering such topics as pollution & health, sustainable development, urban farming & gardening, & cooking with herbs

Through the above activities, the program aims to achieve the following benefits:

  • Empower the high school students to see how they can create change in the community
  • Teach the students about important topics such as environmental health, nutrition, & sustainable community development
  • Encourage the students to think about their career goals, & to pursue further education
  • Provide college & graduate students with a valuable internship experience
  • Deepen relationships between the University of Pittsburgh, community groups & neighborhoods

Staff members include CHEC-affiliated public health graduate students Andrea Arrington, Andrea Grana & Eric Hulsey; Graduate School of Public Health staff Tammy Thomas; & Healcrest Community Farm director Maria Graziani.  CHEC staff member Dave Wheitner also assists intermittently.

The students have already made great progress at Healcrest Farm: weeding & maintenance of the existing garden at the farm, clearing & tilling an area for their own vegetable/herb plot, clearing a large area of invasive Japanese knotweed & establishing a Humanure outdoor composting toilet, & constructing a rainwater collection system!

The Original Gardening Team wishes to thank the following for their support: the Frick Environmental Center, Greenlots, Healcrest Community Farm, the Heinz Endowments, Joanie Lapic, Mildred's Daughters Farm, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, Casey at River Valley School, the Rosedale Block Cluster, Whole Foods, & the caring neighbors in the surrounding communities.

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A Process, Implementation & Ultimate Outcome Evaluation of the Healthy Home Resources Inc - At Home, Environmental Asthma Exacerbation Reduction Intervention

Healthy Homes Resources has just been awarded a grant of $ 925,000 to conduct in-home environmental interventions to improve the health of low income asthmatic children. This grant proposal was developed by Evelyn Majoris of Healthy Homes Resources (Co-Principal Investigator), David Skoner, M.D. of Allegheny General Hospital (Co-Principal Investigator) & Conrad (Dan) Volz, DrPH of GSPH/EOH (University of Pittsburgh, Evaluation Principal Investigator). This money will be used to provide services to an additional 100 children over 50 who are being recruited now for a pilot study. Children will be recruited from the north side communities of the City of Pittsburgh.

The pilot study, funded by the Heinz Endowments, will recruit 50 children who have environmentally induced asthma as determined by skin tests. These children will undergo baseline pulmonary function testing & other pre-intervention outcome measures will be recorded such as lost school days, rescue inhaler use & emergency room visits. Once baseline indicators are established the children & caretakers will undergo an educational program regarding identifying & removing environmental asthma triggers in the home. Additionally, the home of each child will be evaluated for the presence of triggers such as pet hair, molds, dust mites, cockroach parts & droppings & rodent particles. Each home will be cleaned by a remediation team based on the triggers identified.

To determine the effectiveness of the program, air sampling will be performed both before & after the home cleaning intervention to determine the effect of the cleaning. This makes this study unique because it is the first study that will look at actual air levels of allergens & correlate them with asthma symptoms. These children will be followed for the next 18 months to determine the persistence of effect from the intervention, if any & to determine the effectiveness of ongoing education & home visit programs. Lessons learned from evaluating the pilot program will be used to refine the intervention for the next 100 children, funded by HUD. The HUD grant runs from October 1, 2004 thru Oct. 1, 2007.

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State of Environmental Health Data

Environmental Health in the Pittsburgh Region: Toward an Assessment of the Current State of Information - 2005

Our goal was to create the foundation for a consolidated information inventory & data needs assessment that will benefit numerous information producers & consumers within the environmental health community & help to direct future energies in this area.

We did not not attempt to collect actual datasets, but rather information about the pertinence, availability & major strengths/weaknesses of the data, & descriptions of current endeavors that have already compiled & creatively linked information. 

The report of this project covers the following types of data:

  • Consumption / demand / production
  • Source monitoring / emissions estimates
  • Environmental monitoring (air, water & land)
  • Human exposure
  • Built environment characteristics
  • Physical & mental health outcomes & behaviors

Our report also includes the following:

  • Opinions regarding where the major environmental health "information gaps" exist
  • Opinions regarding next steps in improving regional environmental health data
  • Case studies of successful & unsuccessful attempts to obtain & utilize environmental health data for specific purposes

We gathered input from government, non-profit, for-profit, advocacy & community organizations.

If you'd like to provide input after reading the report, please email Chuck Christen: or call him: 412-624-9379.

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Page last updated:
April 29, 2011