Science, Health & Tech

We cover these essential linchpins of the Pittsburgh regional economy, and how they impact residents' personal health and employment. 

A Biography of Methane

Jun 22, 2012

Coal, oil, and natural gas are all fossil fuels, but they have different origins. Coal mainly comes from plants that grew on land and died long ago. The source for oil and methane — the main ingredient of natural gas — is something else.

"But they all more or less have a fairly common origin in that they were once some sort of algae or some other form of sea life, like plankton for instance, that died off long ago," said Dave Yoxtheimer, a geologist at Penn State who studies the Marcellus shale, the largest shale gas deposit in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.3% of Americans and 12.2% of Pennsylvanians were without health insurance in 2010. The report, "Dying For Coverage," just released by Families USA, indicates 745 Pennsylvania residents died prematurely in the same year because they did not have proper health care coverage, with approximately 14 dying per week.

Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA, said people may feel discouraged to seek help when looking at their financial situations.

Improving the Quality of the Cure for Child Cancer

Jun 21, 2012

Every year, around 10,400 children are diagnosed with cancer, and thanks to one health care group's approach to care, the large majority of them will survive the disease. The group is applying the same methods to improving the long-term behavioral outcomes of kids who undergo treatment.

"Meet Bob!"

Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot?

Jun 20, 2012

In Pittsburgh, it's rare that heat reaches a point of danger, but the Allegheny County Health Department is advising the public to be sure to stay cool and hydrated during the next several days because the temperature will be reaching 90º F and above.

Health Department Director Ronald Voorhees said certain people, such as the elderly, those with heart and lung conditions, or others engaging in outdoor activity, may be especially prone to heat exhaustion or stroke.

People who have undergone weight-loss surgery have a greater chance of developing alcohol disorders, according to new research released by University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. This is the first study conducted that directly links these procedures and alcoholism.

Patients from ten hospitals across the United States participated in the study. About 70% underwent RYGB, a type of bariatric surgery, while 25% had laparoscopic adjustable gastric banding, and the remaining 5% were treated with one of three less popular surgeries.

Reprieve Period for Abortion Clinics Underway

Jun 19, 2012

Act 122, or the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) law, passed in December 2011, was to have been enforced today, but providers have received some additional time to comply. TRAP requires surgical abortion clinics to abide by the same regulations as freestanding surgical centers. If they failed to do so by June 19, either they were given a temporary license or could not operate.

Support For Shell Tax Break In Monaca, But Skepticism Over Job Claims

Jun 19, 2012

How much should a state pay to create jobs? Many people are asking that question, as Governor Corbett calls on legislators to pass a $1.65 billion tax break aimed at Royal Dutch Shell.

StateImpact Pennsylvania traveled to Beaver County, to find out how the proposal is playing in the community where Shell is considering building a major chemical processing plant.

VA To Hire More Mental Health Workers

Jun 18, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

In the next few months, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare system will be hiring approximately 42 new mental healthcare workers.

The VA will be bringing on clinicians and support staff to assist the ever-growing number of veterans who seek and require mental health help.

Carnegie Mellon University will host the Nature Gigablitz event from June 20-26, where anyone and everyone can submit documentation of biodiversity in their neighborhoods. Photos are shared and made available for analysis from participants all over the world.

VA To Hire More Mental Health Workers

Jun 18, 2012

In the next few months, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare system will be hiring approximately 42 new mental healthcare workers.

The VA will be bringing on clinicians and support staff to assist the ever-growing number of veterans who seek and require mental health help.

Corbett Administration Defends Tax Credit

Jun 15, 2012

When Governor Tom Corbett praised a deal with a major energy giant to set up shop in Beaver County, he didn't mention a $1.7 billion tax break was needed, too, but now the administration says that was part of the original deal.

Royal Dutch Shell made that request of the Corbett administration when it said it was considering building a natural gas processing plant in western Pennsylvania.

“In the Classroom, Not A Landfill"

Jun 15, 2012

An estimated two and a half million tons of computers and other electronic waste, or "e-waste," is tossed out each year in the United States. Only about 25% is recycled. The rest takes up space in landfills, and sometimes seeps lead and other hazardous chemicals into the ground and water supply. One local nonprofit's found a way to reduce that toxic load, and help people, too.

A few students are gathered in the computer lab of an after-school program south of Pittsburgh in Dormont. It's almost the last day before summer vacation, so it's a little quieter than usual.

The Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District is holding a public comment meeting on a nuclear waste removal project halted in September. Work was stopped after a safety breech and the discovery of "complex" materials which are more difficult to remove, prompted a policy review.

"We don't have any new information, but we want to get their voice and collect their comments so we can forward them up to the people reviewing this policy," said Corps public affairs officer Jeff Hawk.

Pittsburgh City Council heard public testimony Wednesday about a federal Environmental Protection Agency proposal to curb carbon pollution from new coal-fired power plants.

All of the speakers at the hearing supported the EPA's proposed rule, which would cap carbon emissions from future coal-fired plants at 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. The unprecedented regulation would not cover existing plants, or those built within a year of the rule's adoption.

Republicans are speaking out in protest of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) regulations on the energy industry across the nation and in Pennsylvania. U.S Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA-18), Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan, and U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith describe the regulations as a declaration of war on coal.

5k Walk to Promote Prostate Cancer Awareness

Jun 13, 2012

A local foundation is promoting awareness of prostate cancer by hosting its tenth annual "5k/10k run/walk" in the North Side on Sunday morning.

The Obediah Cole Foundation for Prostate Cancer said it expected about 3,000 people to show up at River Front Park for the races this year, which would set a record for the Father's Day event.

Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio Competing for Shell's Cracker

Jun 13, 2012

In March, Governor Corbett announced Royal Dutch Shell was entering into negotiations with Pennsylvania on a deal that would give the company $1.7 billion in tax breaks, but this week, he acknowledged Ohio and West Virginia are still making offers to the company. That uncertainty has critics wary of this tax benefit, especially since the commonwealth has already offered Shell a 15-year tax exemption.

It isn't a rescue, a takeover, or a merger, according to Highmark interim CEO and Board Chairman J. Robert Baum.

However, the Pittsburgh-based health insurer wants to provide at least $275 million to the Jefferson Regional Medical Center and its foundation in return for effective control of Jefferson's Board of Directors.

The local paramedics union has voted down a contract offer from the city of Pittsburgh, and authorized a strike.

The contract offer was rejected overwhelmingly with a vote of 134-9. Local 1 of the Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics said it will continue to negotiate in good faith with the Ravenstahl administration to prevent a strike.

Wrong-site surgery and harmful fall prevention tactics appear to be working. According to the June Pennsylvania Patient Safety Advisory, there has been a decline in the number of reports filed. Wrong-site procedures occur when surgeons operate on a body part other than that intended.

A new study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine shows nearly 1 in 3 college students have admitted to smoking tobacco from a hookah, a single or multi-stemmed instrument in which flavored smoke passes through a water basin before it's inhaled.

Brian Primack, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics, said the study's findings were somewhat surprising.

To head off West Nile Virus, the Allegheny County Health Department today begins to treat storm water catch basins in the Pittsburgh area with pesticides to combat the breeding of mosquitoes. The treatment will continue weekdays from 4:00-9:00 PM.

The bugs can carry the virus, which has already been detected in samples in Allegheny County this year. Four mosquitoes tested positive: three coming from Pittsburgh's East End and the other from Penn Hills.

Some hospital visits are inevitable, but many are preventable. Over the past decade, potentially preventable hospitalizations have declined in the commonwealth. The most recent report [PDF] from the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) tracked 12 conditions and found that in the last ten years the rate of potentially preventable hospitalizations dropped from 231 per 100,000 residents in 2001 to 186.9 per 100,000 in 2010.

Medicaid Changes Have Providers Pulling Teeth

Jun 11, 2012

Marcia Esters lives in a Hazelwood high-rise. As the result of a spinal congenital disorder that was compounded by a workplace accident, she gets around in a motorized wheelchair.

Last fall, she went to her dentist. He told her she needed crowns fused to six of her bottom teeth and her top dentures were wearing out, and because of changes made to Medicaid in the last fiscal budget, the care she needed wouldn't be covered. She would have to pay out of pocket.

A team of researchers from Penn State University has made precise measurements of a binary star system 200 light-years away.

The Kepler-16 system was discovered in 2011 by a team from NASA, but the Penn State study is the first to discern the light output from each of the two small stars using a spectrograph.

Panel Discusses Tapping Into Marcellus Shale

Jun 7, 2012

Businesses from the Pittsburgh region looking to break into the Marcellus Shale industry today received some advice from a panel featuring a keynote speaker from Shell Oil Company. Hosted by the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh, the presentation served as an informational session on how non-drilling companies can take advantage of the natural gas trapped in the rock formation underneath much of Pennsylvania's surface.

Panel Discusses LGBT Health Problems

Jun 6, 2012

Public health experts from the University of Pittsburgh met in Oakland Wednesday to discuss health problems facing gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities.

According to Pitt's Center for LGBT Health, sexual minorities are often more likely to develop certain cancers than heterosexuals. For example, Pitt assistant professor of psychiatry Dr. Tom Mills said lesbians haven't been proven to have higher rates of breast cancer, but that's probably the case.

Jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are growing at a much faster pace than the overall job market, but many people balk at the mention of math or science. Others think there's a "math gene." To combat negative attitudes toward STEM and the notion that you're born mathematically or scientifically inclined, the Carnegie Science Center, the Math and Science Collaborative, FedEx Ground, and WTAE TV have launched a community awareness campaign called "Math + Science = Success."

The city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have purchased steam from Pittsburgh Allegheny County Thermal (PACT) for nearly three decades. The latest 10 year lease is up this summer, so in the interest of making sure the city and county are getting the best deal, County Controller Chelsa Wagner and City Controller Michael Lamb want to do a review of how PACT operates.

An Allegheny County Councilman would like to know how much natural gas lies beneath the county's park system, and exactly how much money that gas is worth.

Councilman Matt Drozd (R-District 1) has introduced legislation calling for an inventory of the county's mineral resources, especially regarding the Marcellus Shale gas formation.

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