BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo researchers are
preparing to conduct a major study that analyzes how Tonawanda Coke
plant emissions have affected the health of area residents and
A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke to fund the $11 million
Tonawanda Health Study after the company was convicted of violating
the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The verdict was appealed, but the UB research team is moving
forward with early planning of the multi-year project. The
scientists will work with the court to finalize the scope of the
study, and are working to convene an external and independent
advisory committee to ensure transparency and scientific excellence
for all research activities that may be conducted.
The UB team is committed to engaging community members in design
“As we move forward, it’s very important that we
engage with area residents,” says lead researcher Matthew
Bonner, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department
of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, School of Public Health
and Health Professions.
Bonner notes that community leaders, as well as local groups
such as the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and Citizen
Science Community Resources, a Tonawanda community organization,
can provide valuable input on issues such as which health problems
the study should examine.
“Area residents have been coping with environmental
concerns for many years, and we want to listen to them and engage
them as partners in our work,” says Jim Olson, UB
Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director
of the Division of Environmental Health within the Department of
Epidemiology and Environmental Health. “What are their
concerns? We want to know.”
Coke oven gas contains a number of toxic chemicals that are
potentially hazardous to health, including benzene, a known
The UB research is proposed to include three parts:
- A study of up to 38,000 residents of the Town of Tonawanda,
City of Tonawanda and Grand Island. This project would track
subjects’ health for a decade, monitoring their benzene
levels in the first years and assessing the incidence of multiple
health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic
lower respiratory diseases and kidney diseases, over the duration
of the study.
- A retrospective study of Tonawanda Coke employees. This
project would examine past records to analyze whether employees
exposed to coke oven gas were more likely to die from related
- The establishment of an environmental health education
center in the community. This facility would give residents a
convenient place to meet face-to-face with experts who could
provide information on the study, as well as general information on
health and wellness and disease prevention.
Both Bonner and Olson are active in UB’s RENEW (Research
and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute, which
aims to address pressing environmental problems facing humanity
Jessica Castner, assistant professor in the UB School of
Nursing, is a co-investigator on the study.
In addition to ordering Tonawanda Coke to fund the $11 million
study, the judge that sentenced the company also ordered it to pay
more than $700,000 to support an air and soil study to examine the
impact of Tonawanda Coke’s emissions on the surrounding
environment. That research would be a collaboration between members
of UB’s Department of Chemistry, the SUNY Fredonia Department
of Chemistry and Citizen Science Community Resources.