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UB study to examine health effects of Tonawanda Coke emissions

UB study to examine health effects of Tonawanda Coke emissions

Up to 30,000 residents of Tonawanda and Grand Island who were exposed to pollution from Tonawanda Coke will be part of the proposed Tonawanda Health Study. Photo: NASA

Published September 26, 2013

A comprehensive UB study that would examine the effects of emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant on the health of residents living near the plant is one of several initiatives being recommended by federal prosecutors for funding with fines expected to be levied against the company by a federal judge.

We anticipate that the results of the epidemiologic studies will provide the residents of Tonawanda and Grand Island with the necessary information about the current burden of disease that is crucial for making rational decisions about approaches to prevent these diseases in the future.
Matthew Bonner , Associate Professor
Department of Social and Preventive Medicine

Prosecutors have recommended that Chief U.S. District Court Judge William Skretny levy $57 million in fines against the company, which was found guilty of 14 criminal charges after a trial earlier this year. Of that figure, prosecutors have proposed that $11 million be used to conduct a 10-year study examining the health effects of Tonawanda Coke emissions.

In addition to determining the amount of the fines, Skretny also will decide how they should be spent.

The proposed Tonawanda Health Study would be led by Matthew Bonner, associate professor, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, and James Olson, UB Distinguished Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Social and Preventive Medicine.

“The University at Buffalo recognizes the importance of public health research within our local communities, and we are firmly committed to engaging and supporting the local community in this important project,” says Provost Charles F. Zukoski, executive vice president for academic affairs.

Bonner says the goal of the study is “to assist the community in understanding the health risks posed by coke oven gas exposure.”

Coke oven gas has a number of toxic chemical constituents that are potentially hazardous, including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are both known carcinogens at occupational levels.

UB researchers would conduct a large, prospective cohort study of up to 30,000 residents of the Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island who were exposed to the pollution, as well as a retrospective, occupational cohort study of Tonawanda Coke employees. Both studies would follow all participants for 10 years.

The third component of the study involves establishing a Tonawanda Environmental Health Education Center that would promote health and wellness in the community.

The prospective cohort study would assess the prevalence of a number of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and kidney diseases in the community, as well as biomonitor cohort members for current benzene levels and follow cohort members to ascertain the incidence of new cases of disease and mortality.

The retrospective occupational cohort study would investigate all-cause and cause-specific mortality—all deaths and the underlying cause of those deaths—among past and current employees.

The health education center, to be located in the Town of Tonawanda, would not provide clinical services: “Rather, health education will be the focus,” Bonner explains. “It’s an important component of this epidemiologic study because it will take the results of the study and work with the community to prevent and reduce the incidence of these diseases going forward, which we should eventually observe in the follow-up.”

He says specific staffing of the health education center has yet to be determined, but that a director and two public health nurses have been proposed to conduct day-to-day operations. There also will be opportunities for partnerships with other UB faculty and students, as well as private-sector and government agencies, he adds.

In addition, a scientific and community advisory committee has been proposed to work with researchers in further developing and implementing the project, he says.

The study would have significant benefits to the Tonawanda and Grand Island communities, Bonner notes.

“We anticipate that the results of the epidemiologic studies will provide the residents of Tonawanda and Grand Island with the necessary information about the current burden of disease that is crucial for making rational decisions about approaches to prevent these diseases in the future,” he says. “Moreover, the environmental health education center will assist the community in translating these findings into action to reduce the disease burden going forward.”