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UB study would examine effect of Tonawanda Coke emissions on residents, employees

NASA map of Tonawanda, Grand Island

Up to 38,000 residents of the city and town of Tonawanda and Grand Island would be part of the proposed Tonawanda Health Study. Photo: NASA

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published July 18, 2014

“As we move forward, it’s very important that we engage with area residents.”
Matthew Bonner, associate professor
Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health

UB researchers are preparing to conduct a major study that analyzes how Tonawanda Coke plant emissions have affected the health of area residents and employees.

A federal judge ordered Tonawanda Coke to fund the $11 million Tonawanda Health Study after the company was convicted of violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The verdict was appealed, but the UB research team is moving forward with early planning of the multi-year project. The scientists will work with the court to finalize the scope of the study, and are working to convene an external and independent advisory committee to ensure transparency and scientific excellence for all research activities that may be conducted.

The UB team is committed to engaging community members in design and implementation.

“As we move forward, it’s very important that we engage with area residents,” 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.

Bonner notes that community leaders, as well as local groups such as the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and Citizen Science Community Resources, a Tonawanda community organization, can provide valuable input on issues such as which health problems the study should examine.

“Area residents have been coping with environmental concerns for many years, and we want to listen to them and engage them as partners in our work,” says Jim Olson, UB Distinguished Professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the Division of Environmental Health within the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health. “What are their concerns? We want to know.”

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

The UB research 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 would track subjects’ health for a decade, monitoring their benzene levels in the first years and assessing the incidence of multiple health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and kidney diseases, over the duration of the study.
  • A retrospective study of Tonawanda Coke employees. This project would examine past records to analyze 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. This facility would give residents a convenient place to meet face-to-face with experts who could provide information on the study, as well as general information on health and wellness and disease prevention.

Both Bonner and Olson 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.

Jessica Castner, assistant professor in the UB School of Nursing, is a co-investigator on the study.

In addition to ordering Tonawanda Coke to fund the $11 million study, the judge that sentenced the company also ordered it to pay more than $700,000 to support an air and soil study to examine the impact of Tonawanda Coke’s emissions on the surrounding environment. That research would be a collaboration between members of UB’s Department of Chemistry, the SUNY Fredonia Department of Chemistry and Citizen Science Community Resources.