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UB researchers to study effect of Tonawanda Coke emissions on community health

Tonawanda Coke

Up to 38,00 residents of the City and Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island would be part of the study.

Published September 28, 2016

“We are hopeful that will be able to bring additional clarity to some of the concerns that community members have expressed about health effects.”
Matthew Bonner, Associate Professor
Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health

UB researchers are moving forward with plans to conduct a multi-year study analyzing how emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant may have affected the health of area residents and employees.

A federal judge ordered the Tonawanda Coke Corporation to fund the $11.4 million Tonawanda Health Study after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company’s appeal was rejected by a federal appeals court earlier this year, and initial funding for the research was released on Sept. 22.

“This is a unique opportunity to increase our understanding of the role that industrial exposures may have on health within communities,” 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. “We are hopeful that will be able to bring additional clarity to some of the concerns that community members have expressed about health effects.”

“We are committed to actively working with the community to conduct the health study,” says James Olson, UB Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and director of the Division of Environmental Health within the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, who is partnering with Bonner as a co-investigator on the project.

Lina Mu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, is also a co-investigator.

In addition to funding the $11.4 million study, Tonawanda Coke was also sentenced to pay more than $700,000 to support an air and soil study that will examine the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s emissions on the surrounding environment. That research, led by Joseph Gardella Jr., SUNY Distinguished Professor and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry, will be a collaboration between members of UB’s Department of Chemistry, the SUNY Fredonia Department of Chemistry and Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR).

“As a community, we have worked diligently over many years to raise awareness about the emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant, and how these emissions may have affected the community, including the environment,” says Jackie James-Creedon, CSCR director. “This air and soil study will help answer important questions regarding these impacts. Community participation and collaboration will be key to the success of this research, and we are pleased to see it move forward.”

A comprehensive, multi-year study

Coke oven gas contains a number of toxic chemicals that are potentially hazardous to health, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

The planned $11.4 million study 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 intends to track residents’ health history, as well as monitor their health outcomes over the next 5-10 years. This may include assessing benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other chemical exposure levels in some residents. Health outcomes that will be assessed will likely include occurrence of heart and other cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory conditions and kidney disease. Additional health outcomes will also be included.
  • A retrospective study of Tonawanda Coke employees. This project intends to examine records to determine whether employees exposed to coke oven gas were more likely to die from related diseases.
  • The establishment of an environmental health education center in the community. The center will benefit the affected community by serving as a hub for community engagement and education — a place where area residents can learn more about and participate in the planned study, and receive general information on health and wellness and disease prevention.

Through the study, the researchers will gather information on many factors, including occupation, lifestyle, personal and family medical histories, and past exposure to various environmental agents. The plan is to include as many members of the community surrounding the Tonawanda coke plant as possible. These data will serve as the basis for research that will focus on how various exposures — including emissions from the Tonawanda Coke plant — relate to health.

This comprehensive approach and detailed data collection is needed because most health outcomes have many factors that influence their development, Bonner says. The community response and participation in these studies will be key to understanding of the health outcomes in the community.

Bonner, Mu, Olson and Gardella are active in UB’s RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) Institute, which aims to address pressing environmental problems facing humanity today.