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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 19, 2013

“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

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 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.”


My husband and I live in the Town of Tonawanda. The first two summers in the town were horrible. Our eyes burned every time we worked outside and the smell was sickening. Air quality has improved (we think) or perhaps problems are not as easily detectable. The proposed study, as well as the community education center, are paramount to those of us living in these areas and in need of more information regarding our health, as well as the environment in which we live. Tonawanda Coke is blatantly running a facility without regard to the community or the planet in our opinion, and should be made an example. We are certain, however, there are other corporate criminals in the same/or other industrial zones. They need to see the consequences. Please continue to keep the public updated on this development and thank you for making it a priority!


Carrie Gardner

My husband worked for Tonawanda Coke for 29 years. He was 54 years old in 2013 when he died of lung cancer --  non-small cell adenocarcinoma. He was a nonsmoker all of his life. I contracted with an attorney in an attempt to pursue a wrongful death claim, but I don't know enough to speak on why the claim failed. I have not received survivors' workers' comp as his spouse to date.  


The issue of negligence as it relates to Tonawanda Coke's poisioning of a community has been addressed and they have been penalized as a corporation committing crimes against the communities they made sick and killed. Unfortunately, the workers inside the plant who are sick, dying or already dead have no legal recourse againist their employer because of the law.


I would be interested to know if other workers have been inflicted with brain disease, brain cancer or lung cancer that continues to go undocumented.


There has been something mentioned to me recently regarding nehpthaline, which has to be broken out of the pipes by workers. The substance crystalizes and sparkles in the air. I understand this to be asbestos.


I hope that your study will look for this substance, as well as conduct a study into the ventilation system of the plant. OSHA a few years ago documented and fined Tonawanda Coke for allowing coke-dust emissions to flow directly into the employee lunch room for years before they put in a breezeway.


Hopefully, there will be no residence restrictions in your examination of the workers. All Tonawanda Coke employees need your help.


Shirley A. Hunter