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January 6, 2011

Research Notes

CBTP funding renewed

Sanjeev Shroff, a faculty member in bioengineering, has been awarded renewed National Institutes of Health funding to support eight doctoral students in the department’s cardiovascular bioengineering training program (CBTP).

The program was established in 2005 with a five-year award totaling $1.66 million. Each year, the grant supported eight doctoral students who were pursuing PhDs in bioengineering with cardiovascular research interests.

The renewal, totaling nearly $1.8 million, extends funding for the program through 2015.

For additional information, visit

Microbes thrive in A-C systems

Swanson School of Engineering researchers have found that nonchemical treatment systems pitched as “green” alternatives to chemical water treatment for commercial air-conditioning systems can allow dangerous bacteria to flourish in the cooling systems of hospitals, commercial offices and other water-cooled buildings.

Their study of five nonchemical treatment devices (NCDs) found the NCDs allowed bacterial growth at about the same rate as untreated water.

Of the devices tested, none significantly prevented bacterial growth. But researchers found that standard chlorine treatment controlled these organisms even after bacteria had been allowed to proliferate.

Co-investigator Janet Stout, a research associate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Pittsburgh-based Special Pathogens Laboratory, said: “Our results suggest that equipment operators, building owners and engineers should monitor systems that rely on NCDs to control microorganisms.” Stout worked with fellow lead investigator Radisav Vidic, chair and William Kepler Whiteford Professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Pitt civil engineering graduate student Scott Duda.

“These cooling systems are energy efficient and, if properly treated, very safe,” Stout continued. “But based on our results, nonchemical devices alone may not be enough to control microbial growth. One possible measure is to add chemical treatment as needed to prevent a potential health hazard.”

The air systems the team investigated work by piping chilled water throughout a building. The water warms as it exchanges temperature with the surrounding air and becomes a hotbed of microorganisms before returning to a central cooling tower to be cleaned and re-chilled. If the returning water is not thoroughly cleaned, bacteria can spread throughout the system, exposing people within the building to possible infection and hampering the system’s energy efficiency.

The team constructed two scale models of typical cooling towers. One model remained untreated while the other was treated with five commercially available NCDs installed according to the manufacturers’ guidelines.

Each device was tested for four weeks. Chlorine was administered three times during the study to demonstrate that an industry-accepted chemical treatment could kill bacteria even in a heavily contaminated system.

The five devices tested represent different classes of NCDs, Vidic said. Pulsed electric-field devices emit electromagnetic energy that, in theory, ruptures bacterial membranes and activates particles that ensnare the bacterium. Electrostatic devices function similarly by producing a constant static field. Ultrasonic devices pass a mixture of untreated water and high-pressure air through a chamber that purportedly disintegrates the bacterium with sound waves. For hydrodynamic cavitation devices, two cone-shaped water streams collide to form a vacuum region filled with high-friction bubbles that collide with and presumably deactivate the bacteria.

Finally, the team tested a magnetic device, although magnetic NCDs are intended to prevent mineral buildup, not control bacterial growth. Graphs showing the bacterial growth within the untreated and NCD-treated towers, as well as microbial growth after chlorine treatment, are available at

The study was funded by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

UPB center gets 2 grants

The Center for Rural Health Practice at Pitt-Bradford recently announced it has been awarded two grants: one aimed at promoting walking, another that will be used to train public health employees in north central Pennsylvania.

The center received a $15,700 grant to fund its “WalkWorks” program, which will identify and promote walking routes in the communities of Bradford, Kane, Port Allegany and Smethport. The walkways must be no more than two miles long and accessible to the community. The project will be ongoing through February 2012 and will allow the center to hire a part-time coordinator to administer the grant.

Youmasu Siewe, director of the center, said, “The overall goal is to increase physical activity for young people and adults through community-based walking programs, reap the benefits of physical activity and improve the overall health of our communities.”

The grant is part of a larger grant awarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  and the Pennsylvania Department of Health to the Graduate School of Public Health. GSPH will provide the Bradford coordinator with training and assist with signs and publicity for the designated routes.

• The center also received a $175,000 grant that will be paid over five years to train public health workers on topics of public health and safety.

Siewe said, “Issues that could affect the health of many individuals within our target counties will be identified, prioritized and addressed from a prevention and intervention perspective through education.”

The grant will be used to hire a part-time program coordinator and a student worker.

The coordinator will train workers including school nurses, county health department staff and state health improvement partners in the target counties of McKean, Warren, Potter, Forest, Elk, Cameron, Clarion, Jefferson and Clearfield.

The grant is funded by the Health Research Service Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, to support the Pennsylvania Public Health Training Center. The health training center is managed by GSPH, the Center for Rural Health Practice and Drexel University.


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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