Science, Health & Tech

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

“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.

Corbett Offers Tax Break to Shell

Jun 5, 2012

In March, Shell Oil announced it was considering building a multi-billion dollar processing plant in Pennsylvania. Governor Tom Corbett wants to give Shell a $1.7 billion tax break to convince the energy giant to build an ethane cracker plant in Beaver County that would be used to convert natural gas compounds into chemicals used to make plastic.

Rare Phenomenon to Occur as Venus Passes Before Sun

Jun 4, 2012

There's only one way humans can see a planet moving in the sky, according to Dan Malerbo, education coordinator at Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Digital Planetarium & Observatory, and that's if the planet happens to pass directly in front of the sun. Venus will be doing just that during a rare phenomenon Tuesday, June 5, at 6:04 PM.

"It's one of the astronomical highlights of the century," Malerbo said, "and what it shows us is the workings of the inner solar system."

Starting in September health care insurers will be required to write their policies in plain language. Currently,the policy descriptions sent to customers by insurance companies tend to be long and difficult to figure out. The Summary of Benefits and Coverage, which is required by The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, changes that.

Pittsburgh Chosen for Science Pilot Program

May 31, 2012

Pittsburgh was chosen over about ten other cities in a search for a pilot program organized by two departments of the National Academies. The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering are teaming up on the project and will begin the "Science and Engineering Ambassador Program" in the fall.

In March, an Allegheny General Hospital patient became the first there to undergo robotically-assisted minimally invasive coronary bypass surgery. The procedure is thought to be less traumatic to the body and allows for faster recovery times for patients.

Teenage athletes disproportionately estimate their recovery from concussions on physical symptoms like headache and nausea, according to a new study from UPMC.

The UPMC Center for Sports Medicine Concussion Program studied 101 concussed teen athletes to find that they often overlook non-physical symptoms like emotional distress, sleep problems, and difficulty in concentration when they are gauging their recoveries.

Robotic-assisted, laparoscopic surgery for prostate cancer has gained in popularity over the years, but a recent UPMC study found it doesn't yield better results than standard open surgery, though it costs a great deal more.

A new study released by the Trust For America's Health (TFAH) shows almost half of all U.S. states scored low on the Injury Prevention Report Card. The Facts Hurt: A State-By-State Injury Prevention Policy Report ranked states on ten indicators and 24 of them scored a five or lower.

The "Hard Head Patrol" is back this summer educating children of all ages on the importance of wearing a helmet when riding anything with wheels. The program sponsored by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh will begin this month and run through September.

The growing popularity of telemedicine may still be out of reach to some, but Pennsylvania is trying to close that gap. Governor Tom Corbett has announced that the state will increase patients' access to specialist care through telemedicine by expanding coverage for people covered by the Medical Assistance Program.

"How this will work is using technology like interactive audio and video equipment, doctors and patients will be able to connect from remote locations," said Carey Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

Several years ago Paul Getsy woke up and went to work like any other normal day. He put on a headset and thought the right ear had stopped working, only to discover it was actually his ear that wasn't working. Getsy suffered what's called sudden sensorineural hearing loss. That's a fast, frequently one-sided and often uncorrectable hearing loss that occurs when there is damage to the inner ear. A steroid treatment didn't work, and traditional hearing aids don't do much for people with this type of hearing loss.

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