Report: Allegheny County in top 2 percent in U.S. for cancer risk from air pollution

Because of toxic air pollution, Allegheny County residents have twice the cancer risk of those living in surrounding counties, according to a report released Thursday by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.

And in hot spots within Allegheny County, the cancer risk is up to 20 times higher.

The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis report, funded by The Heinz Endowments, links the higher cancer rates to a broad class of hazardous air pollutants from industry, energy production and diesel vehicles.

"This report underscores three of the major air quality challenges facing the region -- diesel emissions, large point sources and a potential transforming pollutant mixture from unconventional natural gas drilling operations," said the report's lead author, Drew Michanowicz, a Pitt Public Health research assistant. "Our findings serve to better focus our future research efforts, as well as support response actions by community-based advocacy groups and other stakeholders to meet these challenges."

The report notes that Allegheny County ranks in the top 2 percent of counties in the U.S. for cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants.

The Pitt study is the last of three commissioned by The Heinz Endowments -- the first two focused on airborne particulates and ozone -- and the health impact findings support those of the Post-Gazette's "Mapping Mortality" project, published in December 2010.

PG graphic: Highest cancer rates, by census tract
(Click image for larger version)

That project found that there were 14,636 more deaths in a 14-county Western Pennsylvania area from 2000 through 2008 than national mortality rates predicted, including 600 additional lung cancer deaths. Communities downwind from many pollution sources showed higher mortality rates for respiratory, heart disease and lung cancer.

The Pitt report showed the biggest air toxics emissions affecting public health in the region are diesel particulate matter, formaldehyde, benzene and coke oven gas emissions, which is based on the latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Toxics Assessment data and local air quality monitoring information.

The report found that the census tracts with the highest risk levels are clustered in the southeastern corner of Allegheny County, where heavy industries and coking operations affect air quality in the Liberty-Clairton area near U.S. Steel Corp.'s Clairton coke works, and also in communities downwind from coking and other industrial sources on Neville Island, and in Downtown, where diesel emissions play a major role.

"There's enough information in the report to determine with certainty we have an air toxics problem and challenge that presents a serious and systematic threat to our population and the environment," said Philip Johnson, senior program manager at The Heinz Endowments.

He said the report shows that the region's air problems are unique because they include a heavy load of mobile sources, a large number of industrial sources close to populated areas, and complicated geography, including river valleys, that trap pollutants.

"We have challenges that are more intense and of an overlapping nature compared to other cities and regions," he said. "The report is not about what we aren't doing but rather about what more we can do."

A coalition of environmental and community organizations including Clean Air Council, Clean Water Action, Group Against Smog and Pollution, PennFuture, Sustainable Pittsburgh and Women for a Healthy Environment urged Pittsburgh and the Allegheny County Health Department to implement a series of programs aimed at reducing toxics emissions from industry and diesel sources.

"Our region cannot afford to have its economic turnaround story tainted by the stigma of lingering air quality woes," said Court Gould, executive director, Sustainable Pittsburgh. "We need to redouble efforts to educate, measure and make changes to reduce cancer risks from air pollution."

"In the last few years, we have seen many reports like this one. A typical response from policy makers is to ignore the reports or -- even worse -- discredit them. We desperately need leaders who will not only acknowledge the problems, but act on them," said Tom Hoffman, Western Pennsylvania director, Clean Water Action.

Jim Thompson, the Allegheny County Health Department's air quality director, said the county has long recognized that diesel emissions are a problem in Pittsburgh, and that coke oven emissions have created cancer risk "hot spots" in the Monongahela River Valley.

He said the county has sought to address those problem areas by spending $5 million on programs to rebuild diesel engines and retrofit diesel vehicles to run cleaner. And he said a $1.2 billion renovation and coke oven replacement project at the Clairton coke works will help reduce toxic air emissions.

The highest overall cancer risk in the county is in West Elizabeth, where residents face a cancer risk 20 times higher than residents in surrounding counties.

The report findings are a concern for Louise Biddle of West Elizabeth, the borough council president for the community of 560 people.

"I'm alarmed by it but not surprised," said Ms. Biddle, who has lived in the borough for 62 of her 89 years. "People are aware of it. They know how many people have passed away from cancer.

"I'm not going to say [residents] are going to be afraid, but they will be highly concerned. Once it gets out, we'll see where it goes from there and what we can do."

But Ingrid Palmer, a Glassport resident who owns Drapes by Ingrid in West Elizabeth, said, based on her experience, the report's risk assessment is overstated.

"It's not that bad anymore. I don't think so," she said. "I've been working in West Elizabeth for 40 years or more and have never experienced anything. For my age, 74, I'm a very healthy person. I do not take any medication."

She also said air pollution is not foremost on the minds of those she encounters.

"To tell you the truth, I've never gotten into a conversation with anyone about air quality. Well, I have talked to my neighbor across the street who is 89, and she said that way back when it was really bad."

The report is available at .

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. Michael A. Fuocco contributed.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983. First Published November 21, 2013 12:30 PM

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