Science, Health & Tech

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

Orthopedic Surgery on the Rise in Pennsylvania

Apr 2, 2012

About one in 200 Pennsylvania residents underwent joint replacement surgery in 2010, according to a new study by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4).

The study presents data collected from surgery centers and hospitals statewide to showcase the changes in orthopedic and spinal operations between 2006 and 2010. 28,090 state residents, age 18 or older, underwent a common spine procedure in 2010. The rate was higher, 1 in ever 222, among people 65 and older.

Mixed Outcomes from Ouster of Highmark CEO

Apr 2, 2012

The firing of Highmark CEO Kenneth Melani may have come at an inopportune time for the health insurer, as it prepares to take over the struggling West Penn Allegheny Health System and wages a contract war with UPMC.

Highmark was dealt a blow when Moody's Investors Services downgraded its credit rating in response to the leadership tumult. However, the co-chair of the Pennsylvania House Insurance Committee doesn't see Melani's dismissal as a major factor in contract negotiations between Highmark and UPMC.

Melani Fired As Highmark CEO

Apr 2, 2012

One of the largest insurance companies in Pennsylvania has fired its chief executive officer a week after he was arrested following a fight with the husband of an employee with whom he was having an affair.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark Inc. announced yesterday that the board of directors had dismissed 58 year old Kenneth Melani who had been placed on unpaid leave March 29 after he was charged with simple assault and defiant trespass.

More than 600 social workers gathered in Harrisburg to call for the passage of Senate Bill 922, which would provide state licenses for social workers with bachelor's degrees.

SB 922 would create "practice protection," ensuring licensed professionals meet certain criteria.

Pennsylvania State Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna County), a co-sponsor of the bill, said 43 states have "practice protection" legislation, while 34 issue licenses to social workers with a bachelor's degree.

First-term Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O'Connor has announced a bill that will set up a new Pittsburgh HIV/AIDS commission. The overall goal is to bring together various entities and address gaps that he says exist in the current system. One in four of those living with HIV/AIDS in the city are not being treated.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with engineers at MIT have demonstrated that a substance known as BZ gel can sense and respond to stimuli, similar to human skin.

When placed in an environment with certain agents, the gel, with a chemically-attached catalyst, will begin to pulse as it expands and contracts. Few materials can mimic this autonomous oscillation. The gel can, with the potential to restart pulses by sensing touch.

Provision in Marcellus Shale Bill Prompts Controversy

Mar 30, 2012

Public health advocates and some environmental groups are crying foul over a provision in Act 13. The groups claim the wording in the law, which regulates shale drilling, amounts to a gag order for doctors when it comes to chemicals that may make people sick, but industry advocates say that's not the case.

Non-disclosure

Zero Waste Pittsburgh Expands Certification Efforts

Mar 29, 2012

Zero Waste Pittsburgh is introducing ZIP certification for businesses and institutions that set and achieve greater waste reduction goals.

Zero Waste Pittsburgh is a project of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, and offers waste program evaluations, studies, technical assistance, and employee training. Since 2007, Zero Waste Pittsburgh has certified events such as the Annual Strawberry Festival, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the 2011 Blues Festival.

57,000 People Could Be Without Heat & Electricity

Mar 28, 2012

In a few days, a winter ban will end that's kept power companies from shutting off the heat and electricity for low-income families that haven't paid their bills.

But a legal aid non-profit is asking utilities companies to show some clemency to Pennsylvanians who need help paying those bills.

Michael Froehlich, a lawyer with the Community Legal Services based in Philadelphia, said it's an issue because more than 57,000 applications for heating assistance are still pending.

Pennsylvania Democrats Make Hay Over Ultrasound Bill

Mar 27, 2012

A state House measure that would require women to get an ultrasound before they undergo an abortion is on hold due to concerns voiced by medical groups but that has not stopped opponents from striking back against the bill.

Protesters gathered at the Capitol Monday to rally against the bill. Several political candidates were in the crowd.

"The ultrasound bill of course wouldn't affect me… I'm too old to have children," said Harriet Ellenberger, a Democrat running for a House seat in Westmoreland County. "I'm protesting the bill on behalf of younger women," she said.

16 buses carrying people from all over Pennsylvania made their way to the nation's capital to participate in the "Hands Off My Healthcare Rally" that's taking place as the Supreme Court hears arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

"I think most of us feel this is a direct assault on our health, our families, and on our ability to make decisions that are made for us by nameless, faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington, DC," said Jennifer Stefano, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has announced it will approve grant funding for the design and licensing of two small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) to bring nuclear energy to a condensed area.

Representatives Tim Murphy (R-PA-18) and Jason Altmire (D-PA-4) introduced legislation last year calling for a public-private partnership. Murphy explained that the approval from the DOE is for competitive grants, and the companies must have a 50 percent cost-sharing through private investment.

"ED Bill" Sponsor Hopes To Put Ultrasound Bill In Perspective

Mar 23, 2012

A state lawmaker who takes issue with a proposal requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortions plans to introduce a health care bill he calls "similarly ridiculous."

The proposal by Senator Larry Farnese would require men seeking erectile dysfunction medication —like Viagra— to undergo a cardiac stress test and a prostate exam.

Pennsylvania Water 7th Most Polluted In Nation

Mar 22, 2012

Industrial facilities dumped more than 10 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Pennsylvania's waterways, making the state's waterways the seventh worst in the nation, according to a new report released today by PennEnvironment.

Wasting Our Waterways: Industrial Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act also reports that 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into 1,400 waterways across the country.

Lung Association Defends Clean Air Act

Mar 21, 2012

The American Lung Association is hosting "Healthy Air Day" in Pittsburgh to back the Clean Air Act as a part of the organization's Red Carriage Initiative.

Pennsylvania state Representatives and Senators received an overall failing grade on recent Marcellus Shale gas drilling votes, according to a new score card released today.

Environmental groups— PennEnvironment, Clean Water Action, Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, and Sierra Club— graded all 253 Pennsylvania state lawmakers on how they voted on HB 1950.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is following the lead other counties have taken, in proposing legislation that would authorize an impact fee on Marcellus Shale natural gas wells in the county. Such a move, he said, would help take pressure off residents.

"This is another way to get revenues from the Marcellus Shale operations, it's basically an extraction fee, an extraction tax, which I think most people support in trying to alleviate the pressure on property tax," said Fitzgerald.

Pitt Researchers Make Bandwidth Discovery

Mar 19, 2012

A University of Pittsburgh research team believes transmitting data through fiber optics could be one thousand times faster.

Dr. Hrvoje Petek, a professor of physics and chemistry at Pitt, and Muneaki Hase, a professor of applied physics at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, partnered to create a fiber optic frequency comb, improving the speed information could travel.

Petek said people use fiber optic technology daily.

This Week is Wildfire Prevention Week

Mar 19, 2012

Governor Tom Corbett has proclaimed this week as Wildfire Prevention Week in Pennsylvania. According to the state Bureau of Forestry, nearly 85 percent of Pennsylvania's wildfires occur from March to May.

Chris Novak, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), said the amount and severity of wildfires varies depending on weather.

More than 80 worship leaders are set to meet with experts at the University of Pittsburgh's Voice Center on Sunday for a seminar on vocal health.

Voice Center Associate Director Jackie Gartner-Schmidt said many religious leaders experience vocal strain when delivering long, emotional sermons.

"We're rarely paying attention to how we speak and the emotions of what we're saying," said Gartner-Schmidt. "Especially in worship team, praise team, and worship leading, sometimes the emotion and speaking loudly, we can get a little carried away and our voice can take a hit."

All too often a patient who has battled an aggressive sickness ends up succumbing to a simple, but ultimately fatal, infection.

"These are patients … who are undergoing chemotherapy, whose immune systems get compromised," said Dr. Aleem Gangjee of Duquesne University, "patients who are transplant recipients — their immune system is also compromised — and of course for patients who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS."

Gangjee is a medicinal chemist who, along with a team of researchers, is developing compounds that will tackle the stubborn fugnal infection.

CMU Research Sheds Light on Chinese Censorship

Mar 13, 2012

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have published a report showing that the Chinese government is censoring more internet content than previously believed.

Lead author David Bamman said Chinese censors blocked 16% of the 57 million microblog posts he monitored.

The posts were censored for a variety of reasons. Some were spam, others were pornographic, but Bamman said the most highly deleted terms were political.

Pittsburgh Zoo Loses “Unique Animal”

Mar 12, 2012

"Noname," the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium's Komodo dragon for more than 14 years, died during surgery on Sunday.

Henry Kacprzyk, curator of reptiles and Kids Kingdom at the zoo, said Noname came to Pittsburgh from the National Zoo. He said Disney's Animal Kingdom also wanted the animal, but the National Zoo thought the staff in Pittsburgh was more professional.

He said Noname became comfortable with people and their presence.

A new study indicates exposure to heavy diesel exhaust fumes in workplace mines increases the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Mike Attfield led the initiative, titled "The Diesel Exhaust in Miners Study: A Cohort Mortality Study With Emphasis on Lung Cancer," [PDF] that he said aimed to improve upon previous thoughts and research.

The Carnegie Science Center is holding an exposition to introduce middle school and high school students to career options in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

In its twelfth year, "SciTech Days" is expected to bring in more than 3,000 students this week, learning about STEM professions from about 40 businesses and universities. Another 3,000 are expected in the November edition of SciTech Days.

Linda Ortenzo, Director of STEM Programs at the Science Center, said the students get to see how science and technology are used in business.

PA Turnpike Tolling Could Become Fully Electronic

Mar 6, 2012

Paying a toll on the Pennsylvania turnpike could become a thing of the past…well, kind of.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission announced it will continue to pursue a conversion to an All-Electronic Toll (AET) collection system, which could enhance safety, improve customer convenience and increase operational efficiency.

Amid Shale Rush, Trying to Answer Health Questions

Mar 2, 2012

Amy Pare is a plastic surgeon in Washington County. She makes her living doing lifts, tucks and augmentations. So it's remarkable that she finds herself in the middle of a public health debate. It started about two years ago, she says.

That's when patients started coming in with what looked like acne on their faces.

"We started to have patients that would have open areas or recalcitrant lesions, that just kind of bled, ulcerated, didn't quite heal."

Peoples Natural Gas is asking the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to approve a base rate increase of $28.4 million to fund its modernization efforts. The plan, which began last year, is to replace all 44 miles of cast iron pipes throughout the company's system.

"We look at the cast iron pipeline system as the most at-risk pipelines." said Joe Gregorini, Vice President of Rates and Regulatory Affairs. "The fact is that's fairly old pipeline that's been around many, many years."

Fallingwater App Now Avaliable

Feb 27, 2012

Ever wonder if there was a way to carry Fallingwater in your pocket all the time? Now you can have interactive photos and videos of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece on your smart phone and in your hand.

The Fallingwater app was developed by in-D media, a multimedia company, for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which owns Fallingwater. The app includes 275 color photos, 17 virtual reality panoramas, and 25 minutes of video.

Linda Wagner, director of Fallingwater, said one of the most fascinating things about the app is its interactive content.

Virtual pickpocketing may have just become more challenging.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have created a new method to improve credit card security that allows a card to be turned "on" and "off."

With new technology such as Near-Field Communications (NFC) and Radio Frequency Identification (ID), consumers no longer have to swipe their credit card to make a purchase or withdraw money. Instead, they may simply "wave" their card over a scanner.

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