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Environmental Health Study for Western New York

Published August 28, 2017

The Environmental Health Study for Western New York is a 10-year study that investigates how emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant and other sources may have affected — and may continue to affect — the health of surrounding communities.

The results will provide the residents of the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island with important new knowledge about their collective health. Such information can inform decision-making within these communities, helping residents and local leaders decide how to focus public health policies, as well as community-driven initiatives aimed at improving community health through education, awareness and clinical care. In the future, insights from the study could help to prevent disease in these and other communities.

Leading the study are researchers from the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions and Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. A community advisory committee consisting of residents and community leaders will help inform the project, and a scientific advisory committee consisting of national and international experts with experience in environmental and occupational health will provide guidance on scientific matters, including the study methodologies to be used.

FAQ

What is the purpose of the study?

The goal is to learn more about how pollutants emitted by the Tonawanda Coke plant have affected the health of surrounding communities, including residents of the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island, along with people who worked at or near the plant.

The research team will use scientifically established approaches to understand the types of health problems community members are experiencing, and how these conditions may be linked to exposure to chemicals found in coke oven emissions, such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The research will also explore how lifestyle factors like diet and exercise may help to lower the risk of environmentally associated disease.

The study will not only analyze the historical impact of exposure to emissions on health outcomes, but will also document new cases of diseases that arise over the 10-year study period. This work will provide insight on how exposure to emissions may be continuing to impact people’s lives today, even after the plant emissions have been markedly reduced.

To capture a more complete picture of how various environmental exposures have affected the health of the communities studied, the research will seek to understand the communities’ past exposure to these chemicals through not only coke oven emissions but also through other sources, such as traffic emissions.

How will the study benefit the community?

The research aims to empower the local communities by helping residents of the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island gain important new knowledge about their collective health.

The study will give residents an increased understanding of how prevalent various diseases are in their communities, and how these diseases may be linked to pollutants found in coke oven emissions. The research will also shed light on how lifestyle factors like diet and exercise affect a person’s risk of developing disease following exposure to pollutants.

Such information can inform decision-making, helping residents and community leaders decide how to focus public health policies, as well as community-driven initiatives aimed at improving community health through education, awareness and clinical care. In the future, insights from the study could help to prevent disease in these and other communities.

Who is conducting the study?

A team from the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions and Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is leading the study, with input from two advisory committees.

A community advisory committee consisting of residents and community leaders will provide input to help guide the project, and a scientific advisory committee consisting of national and international experts with experience in environmental and occupational health will provide guidance on scientific matters.

The UB Institutional Review Board will review all study protocols — crucial oversight that is intended to protect the rights and wellness of study participants. 

How will the research team ensure that local communities have a voice in the project?

The research team has met with community members and leaders on multiple occasions to discuss the study and solicit feedback about the project. Researchers are establishing a community advisory committee that will consist of residents and community leaders who will provide input to help guide the project, providing insight on the design of the study and playing a key role in deciding how research findings can best be shared with and communicated to local communities.

How will the research team ensure that the study is scientifically sound?

The research team is establishing a scientific advisory board consisting of national and international experts, including epidemiologists and toxicologists who have experience in environmental and occupational health. This outside group of experts will provide guidance on scientific matters, offering feedback on the study’s design and analysis.

How will the study be conducted?

The study will follow thousands of residents from the City of Tonawanda, Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island over 10 years to assess the impact of exposure to emissions on their health. The goal is to enroll up to 38,000 people.

Participants will complete detailed questionnaires that ask about their health history and lifestyle habits. Participants will also be asked to fill out short follow-up questionnaires periodically to provide updates on their health and their lifestyle habits. Participants will also be asked to give urine and blood samples, which can provide useful information relating to an individual’s exposure to chemicals and risk for developing disease.

The research will use a variety of scientific methods to understand the link between chemical emissions and health outcomes — including diseases that are not yet known to be associated with pollutants — in the community.

The project also includes a study of Tonawanda Coke employees. This research intends to examine records to determine whether employees exposed to coke oven gas were more likely to die from related diseases.

How can I enroll or stay up to date on the study?

General enrollment of the community has not yet begun. Researchers are in the planning phase of the study but expect to begin enrolling community participants by spring of 2018, pending approvals from the UB Institutional Review Board. 

A study website will be established to share enrollment information and updates on the progress of the research.

How will researchers investigate the link between chemical emissions and disease?

To understand residents’ exposure to pollutants, researchers will use data collected by air quality monitors over several decades to reconstruct how emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant and other sources were dispersed over many years. This advanced geographic modeling will help the team estimate how much residents in different locations were exposed to chemicals found in coke oven emissions, such as benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, over time. 

The team also plans to measure the metabolites — the breakdown products — of chemicals in urine samples from study participants. While certain chemicals have a short half-life, including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the level of metabolites in urine can provide valuable information about recent and ongoing exposure that will help to characterize exposure more comprehensively. 

To understand the health problems residents are experiencing, researchers will analyze participants’ responses to questionnaires. Participants will also be asked to give a blood sample, which the research team plans to analyze for biologic markers such as signs of oxidative stress that may be linked to cancer and other health conditions.

Taken together, the information regarding residents’ health and exposure to chemicals will enable researchers to draw connections between chemical exposure and the prevalence of different diseases in the community. 

We already know that benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are linked to disease. So why study them again?

Benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons will be included in the research, but are not the only chemicals that will be studied. Many other chemicals are found in coke oven emissions, and the research team plans to analyze several of these, including particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and cadmium.

In addition, while the effects of benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on health have been researched, the study will provide important new information on how these chemicals may be linked to the health of the specific communities studied. In the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island, the study will track how these pollutants may be linked to a variety of health problems — including diseases that are not yet known to be linked to chemicals found in coke oven emissions.

Past studies have linked benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to disease in people exposed to extremely high, occupational levels. It is less clear how lower levels of these compounds over time may affect disease.

The UB researcher who is leading the study — Matthew Bonner, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health — explains that the most definitive studies linking benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to health concerns have been conducted on mostly male populations exposed to extremely high levels of such chemicals in locations such as factories.

The scientific community knows less about the impact on the elderly, women and children, and how levels of exposure akin to those experienced by the residents of the City of Tonawanda, the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island correlate with disease, Bonner says. The new study aims to address these and other gaps in knowledge. 

What are the study’s limitations?

This study will not be able to assess all illnesses that might be caused by environmental pollution because some conditions are very rare.

In addition, reconstructing individual historical exposure levels to common environmental pollutants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene, is an imperfect process. As a result, the study may only capture the strongest associations between chemical exposure and health. In addition, the study will not be able to state definitively whether an individual participant’s health problems are linked to exposure, but rather characterize average risks in the population.

How is the study being funded?

A federal judge ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corporation to fund the $11.4 million study after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. A federal appeals court rejected the company’s appeal in 2016, and initial funding for the research was released that year.

Is the Tonawanda Coke Soil Study part of this project?

No. The federal judge that ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corporation to fund the environmental health study also ordered the company to fund a second, separate $711,000 soil study.

The soil study, which is being conducted by a different team, tests for contaminants in the soil in surrounding communities. From the results of the soil testing, the soil study team will examine how the contaminants are related to emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant. More information on the soil study is available online here