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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.”