Release Date: July 21, 2003
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo and the New York State Department of Health are teaming up to conduct a study to investigate the incidence of autoimmune and respiratory diseases in the Bellevue neighborhood of the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga.
Residents of the neighborhood, located near three landfills and a stone quarry, have been concerned about what they believe is a high incidence of autoimmune and respiratory diseases due to environmental hazards. While previous studies conducted by the state health department in ZIP Codes that include the neighborhood have not shown an elevated incidence of disease, residents have continued to call for additional, more geographically specific studies.
Starting this week, nine UB students, accompanied by neighborhood residents, will go door-to-door to gather health information on current residents. Health information also will be gathered on former residents who wish to participate.
The collaboration between UB, the state health department, Town of Cheektowaga and citizens groups will compare rates of these diseases in this neighborhood to a nearby neighborhood with similar demographics.
"This survey is the first of its kind in the country," said Joseph A. Gardella, Ph.D., UB professor of chemistry and principal investigator on the project, "because it was designed by the community itself, along with the collaboration of UB and the New York State Department of Health." Associate dean for external affairs in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, Gardella is an environmental chemist who has won local and national awards for working with citizens groups to resolve conflicts concerning the environment.
The study, which targets a total of about 3,000 individuals in each neighborhood, was designed to go to the heart of a problem that traditionally has dogged efforts to determine links between environmental hazards and human health.
"This is a constant tension in these community environmental health studies," said Gardella. To get statistically sound results, he explained, the survey must cover a large area, but communities feel that large survey areas end up diluting any local environmental impacts.
"The state health department worked with the community to help the residents understand how the number of participants affects the statistical validity of a survey for individual diseases," said Gardella.
Unlike diseases such as asthma or cancer, where hospitalizations or new cases are reported nationally and are a good measure of the impact of the disease on a community, data on the prevalence of autoimmune disease in the population are relatively scarce, he added.
The UB project aims to combat this problem by ensuring very high participation, requiring residents to be approached individually, a method that would be prohibitively expensive if the state were to do it, Gardella explained.
"That's where UB comes in," he noted.
Coordinated by a UB doctoral student in anthropology, the group of students who will be visiting with residents includes undergraduate students studying anthropology and graduate students in geography, all of whom attended formal training sessions.
"Our goal here is to try and evaluate scientifically the citizens' concerns about the prevalence of disease in their community," said Gardella.
The survey project, funded in part by UB's Environment and Society Institute, follows two previous efforts by the state health department -- and covering larger geographic areas -- to evaluate the incidence of cancer and respiratory illness in the area.
Most of the cancer data resulting from those studies did not show any excesses, with the exception of a significantly high rate of uterine cancer, which could not be explained easily by the scientific and medical literature, said Gardella. The state health department is following up on those results with an additional cancer study targeted to practically the same neighborhood that is being studied for the prevalence of autoimmune and respiratory disease.
Participants in the UB/state health department study will complete surveys without study representatives present and mail them, postage-paid, directly to the UB researchers. The confidentiality of participants and the privacy of health information will be maintained and community members will not have access to the surveys or the data concerning individuals or households.
The study protocol was written by the state health department with input from UB, the Cheektowaga Citizens' Coalition and the Erie County Department of Health. Data collection, management and analysis will be organized by UB. The draft summary report will be written jointly by UB and the state health department. It will be circulated among members of the community and other interested parties before it is finalized.