UB statement on the Environmental Health Study for Western New York

Release Date: October 17, 2019

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The following is a statement from the University at Buffalo regarding the Environmental Health Study for Western New York:

“The University at Buffalo is firmly committed to investigating how pollution and other factors have affected the health of citizens who live and work near the former Tonawanda Coke site. Guided by scientific expertise and aided by strong community involvement, UB researchers are conducting a rigorous and unbiased epidemiological study. The goal is to provide members of the community and policymakers with new information to make long-term decisions that improve public health and reduce the risk of disease.”

Frequently asked questions:

What is UB’s response to CSCR’s claim that UB has “re-victimized” or “run roughshod over” nearby residents of Tonawanda Coke by ignoring the community outreach and education aspects of its research study?

  • UB strongly disputes such claims. Nearly 13,000 citizens have signed up to participate in the health study. The university is working diligently with these stakeholders and their respective communities to gain important new knowledge about their collective health. In the future, insights from the study could help to drive individual health decisions, public health policy and help prevent disease.

What is UB’s response to CSCR’s claim that the health study is being used “solely to further the personal research agenda of academics?

  • Such claims are untrue. The focus of the study has, and continues to be, about the collective health of the people who live and work near the former Tonawanda Coke site. Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect.

What is UB’s response to the claim that UB is the only entity to have benefited from the judgement?

  • UB strongly disputes this claim. For example, the university typically changes a fee for research contracts. These fees help cover the costs of using resources such as university facilities, equipment, utilities and more. Recognizing the important service that the studies will perform for the community, the university has waived 100% of the fee and will absorb those costs. As a result, the entirety of the funds provided by the court are being used in direct support of research to investigate health risks for citizens who live and work near the former Tonawanda Coke site.

What is UB’s response to the claim that there is no oversight of the health study?

  • The study has extensive and appropriate oversight. For example, UB submitted routine reports to U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services until March 2019, when the probationary period for Tonawanda Coke ended and UB was instructed that it need not send additional documents. The Research Foundation for the State University of New York also provides oversight because it is administering funding from the court; this will continue throughout the entirety of the study. There are also numerous internal controls. For example, UB’s Sponsored Project Services office reviews all study expenses to ensure that they follow federal and state procedures and guidelines. Also, UB’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) reviews all studies involving human subjects to assure that the project is justified on scientific grounds, and to assure appropriate protection for the rights and welfare of study participants. Additionally, the IRB checks investigators to assure that there are no conflicts of interest that could lead to bias in the interpretation of study results. UB researchers submit personal financial data to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics to ensure that researchers are in compliance with New York State laws. Lastly, UB takes its responsibility to the community and court very seriously. These internal and external controls, combined with UB’s commitment to public service and making a positive impact on society, ensure the study will follow proper procedure and meet its objectives.

Why hasn’t UB opened an environmental health education center?

  • UB operated an environmental health education center in Tonawanda from October 2016 to July 2018, when the lease on the space expired. At that point, the community advisory committee suggested that UB delay reopening the education center until findings from the study are available. In the interim, researchers and the community advisory committee have been working on alternative avenues for community outreach and education. Examples include a website with environmental health resources, a newsletter, seasonal fact sheets for healthy living, and outreach at public events. Additional resources will be made available to the public in the future, and when researchers have results to share.

What happened to the $3 million UB promised for environmental health education center?

  • A portion of the budget was spent to support the environmental health education center in Tonawanda from October 2016 to July 2018. But a majority of these monies have been set aside for use in community outreach and education as results of the health study become available. Of note, UB researchers, along with the study’s scientific and community advisory committees, are developing new plans for community outreach and education. In January, UB hired an education coordinator who has been working with the research team and Community Advisory Committee to develop and deploy educational activities.

CSCR says UB has yet to provide any “financial data” to either the Probation Department or the Department of Justice. Is this accurate?

  • The UB research team has provided routine progress reports and financial data to U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services. The Department of Justice has not asked UB to submit reports.

What do you think of the CSCR’s request for the Department of Justice to require UB to submit progress reports every six months?

  • The Department of Justice has never asked UB to submit reports regarding the study. If Justice Department officials contact UB to discuss the study, the university will be glad to do so.

How many people are enrolled in study?

  • So far, 12,716 people (mostly residents of Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda and the Town of Tonawanda) have enrolled in the study.

Why isn’t the public more involved in the study?

  • The public is involved in the study. We have established a community advisory committee consisting of residents and community leaders who are providing input to help guide the project. Also, we have 12,716 people who have signed up to participate in the study to gain a better understanding of the community’s collective health.

How will the study benefit the community?

  • The research will give residents a better 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 help individuals and policymakers create community-driven initiatives that improve 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.

With the probation office no longer providing oversight, how do we know if UB is adhering to court-approved study plan?

  • UB takes its responsibility to the community and the court system very seriously. The study is being led by a team of researchers who have decades of experience assessing how pollution, commercial products (such as pesticides) and other factors influence disease among large populations. Moreover, scientific and community advisory committees have been providing input and guidance on the study since its inception. Also, the Research Foundation for the State University of New York is providing additional oversight because it is administering the funding from the court. This will continue throughout the entirety of the study.

What steps has UB taken to ensure the study is scientifically sound?

  • The study is being led by a team of researchers from UB’s School of Public Health and Health Professions and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. This team has decades of experience assessing how pollution, commercial products (such as pesticides) and other factors influence disease among large populations. Additionally, the research team has established a scientific advisory committee that consists of international experts with experience in epidemiology and environmental health. This outside group of experts is providing guidance and feedback on scientific matters.

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