Science, Health & Tech

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

An unusually dry season has caused water in the Youghiogheny Lake to drop five feet below the normal level, forcing some recreational areas to close sooner than expected. The Mill Run Recreational Area is expected to close this week, while the Tub Run Camping Area will more than likely close next week.

Werner Loehlein, Chief of Water Management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Pittsburgh region, said minimal snowfall this past year has been a contributing factor to the low water levels.

Seven more communities in the Pittsburgh area have banned tobacco and smoking in their parks, playgrounds, and other recreational areas. Currently, 34 of the 130 municipalities in Allegheny County are a part of the Young Lungs at Play program.

Searching For Savings, Drivers Turn To Natural Gas

Jul 5, 2012

Whether it's men­tal, writ­ten on an enve­lope or metic­u­lously doc­u­mented in a spread­sheet, a list of pros and cons often plays a role in the pur­chase of a new car.

What's the mileage like? How safe is it? How's it look?

If a shop­per was weigh­ing whether or not to buy a nat­ural gas-fueled car, the top item on the "pro" side would with­out a doubt be the cost of fuel: right now the gallon-equivalent of com­pressed nat­ural gas costs less than half as much as a gal­lon of gasoline.

The next time someone suggests going out for a drink, you may want to take them up on their offer because it could improve your friendship. A new study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh reveals moderate alcohol consumption in a social setting can increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions while enhancing bonding among peers.

The Sounds of Science

Jul 3, 2012

For over a century, scientists have known that gases in the atmosphere can trap heat, making the planet warmer. To illustrate this Greenhouse Effect, we recorded a pair of singers, David Jennings-Smith, a singer with the Pittsburgh Opera, and Pittsburgh vocalist Angela Morelli.

Protesters Line Up Outside New UPMC Facility

Jul 2, 2012

Even though their community hospital is gone, Braddock residents gathered outside the new UPMC East hospital in Monroeville today to protest the facility's grand opening. The protesters complain that the old Braddock hospital was closed to make way for the new hospital. They see it as swapping healthcare for poor and minorities in exchange for healthcare for well-off suburbanites.

Summer Gas Bill Moves To Governor's Desk

Jul 2, 2012

With summer now in full swing, the State Senate has agreed to amendments made by the House to the Federal Clean Air Act in relation to compliance with requirements for low Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) gasoline, more commonly known as "summer gas." The legislation aims to make gasoline cheaper for motorists in western Pennsylvania.

Michael Rader, Executive Director to the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said the original goal was to do away with the high-cost gasoline.

A sizeable caravan of bikers will motor from West Mifflin to Morgantown later this month for "Operation Pledge-for-Life," a motorcycle ride to raise awareness of the need for organ donors.

The not-for-profit Center for Organ Recovery and Education (CORE) is hosting the event for the second year running.

UPMC Opens New Hospital in Monroeville

Jul 2, 2012

Today, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is opening a new 156-bed hospital in Monroeville. UPMC expects the facility to create a few hundred new jobs.

The new $250 million UPMC East hospital is about a mile away from the Forbes Regional Medical Center run by UPMC's rival, West Penn Allegheny Health System.

UPMC East President Mark Sevco said it was not built to compete with Forbes Regional. "Our focus isn't on Forbes at all. It's about spreading out and smoothing the demand for UPMC services across our system," said Sevco.

The Future of Energy

Jun 29, 2012

Nathan Hultman, a scientist at the University of Maryland, has thought a lot about shale gas, climate change, and energy policy. It's not so much the emissions he's worried about with shale gas, but the impact it will have on a cleaner type of energy.

This story is part of "Gas Planet," a special presentation of the Allegheny Front.

Salt And Ice Challenge Injures Local Boy

Jun 29, 2012

A popular but dangerous "dare" among teenagers has come to Pittsburgh with potentially scarring results. Doctors at the West Penn Burn Center this week treated their first patient suffering from injuries due to a so-called "salt and ice challenge."

Every year thousands of people across the U.S. are injured by fireworks. The vast majority of those injuries occur between June 18 and July 18. Law enforcement officials and doctors warn that even seemingly harmless fireworks you can buy from road-side stands are explosive devices and can be dangerous.

Speculation Grows on AdultBasic Court Case

Jun 28, 2012

A recent opinion handed down by the Commonwealth Court could signal problems with the way the state eliminated its low-cost health insurance program last year. A group of former enrollees of AdultBasic sued over how it was set to zero. Legislators used a provision in a budget-related bill called the "fiscal code" to make the change.

The court hasn't heard that case or ruled on it, but the opinion has overruled part of the state's preliminary objections to the lawsuit, signaling the way AdultBasic was slashed could still be deemed unconstitutional.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wants Pennsylvania homes to be a bit safer and more energy efficient. It is trying to get out the word through a series of webinars. The online events will be offered every quarter starting Wednesday, June 27 at 7:00 PM.

Amanda Witman, spokeswoman for the DEP, said the webinars are a part of the Department's new initiative to promote better living. The first webinar, titled "Summertime Advisories," will run a little longer than one hour. Witman said several more will follow focusing on a variety of topics.

Find Historical Markers on Smartphones

Jun 26, 2012

History buffs and travelers alike may find the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission's newly updated mobile website useful for finding interesting sites while on the go in the state. Smartphone users can go to on their mobile web browser, click "Find What's Nearby," and locate historical markers and museums in close proximity.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Children's Hospital doctor David Hackam conducted a 34-week study on mice that could be a breakthrough for the cause, treatment, and prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a disease in which the intestines die in babies born prematurely. Hackam's findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that when premature baby mice were fed amniotic fluid, it reduced the risk of NEC.

Translating The Web While Learning A New Language

Jun 25, 2012

Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists have spun off a new, free website called Duolingo, where language learners translate real-world texts from the Internet while they're building vocabulary and grammar skills.

Methane the Potent

Jun 22, 2012

Methane comes from a lot of things, not just a gas well. It bubbles out of swamps, landfills, and rice paddies. Believe it or not, cows are a major source of methane. A recent study said it was up to 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. To explain why, the story begins not on earth, but in space.

All energy on earth comes from the sun, mainly in the form of light.

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.