People living in a 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania have a significantly higher than acceptable risk of developing cancer because of exposure to toxic air pollution released by manufacturing processes, energy production and diesel combustion, according to a new report.
The Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis Report—funded by The Heinz Endowments and completed by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities—analyzes publicly available data on hazardous air pollutants.
Air toxics include about 200 pollutants identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as respiratory, neurological and reproductive disorders. The report is the third in a series as part of a project examining major threats to human health and the environment in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“While the region as a whole experiences a constant burden of air toxics, the report found that people living in Allegheny County have a cancer risk more than twice—and in some cases 20 times—that of those living in surrounding rural areas,” said senior author James Fabisiak, associate professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. “In fact, the county ranks in the top 2 percent of U.S. counties in terms of cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants.”
The report also found that census tracts with the very highest risk levels are clustered in the southeastern corner of Allegheny County in the heavily industrialized Liberty-Clairton area, as well as in the neighborhoods downwind from Neville Island and Downtown Pittsburgh.
“This study reinforces in sobering detail what we already know: The Pittsburgh region still has one of the most serious air pollution problems in the country,” Endowments President Robert Vagt said. “Our aspirations for truly becoming the most livable city cannot be realized if our health and environment are threatened by dangerous levels of air toxics, which is why the work of the Breathe Project coalition to solve this problem is one of our highest priorities.”
The top cancer drivers from hazardous air pollutants in southwestern Pennsylvania include diesel particulate matter, formaldehyde, benzene and coke oven emissions, according to the report, which uses the latest available EPA National Air Toxics Assessment data. Lesser, but still significant risk, is posed by carbon tetrachloride, acetaldehyde, arsenic and chromium.
Using data from previous direct monitoring of pollution in three Allegheny County locations (Downtown, Oakland and South Fayette), the report noted that air toxics released from stationary point sources, such as the coke works in Clairton and on Neville Island, pose a greater cancer risk over a wide geographic area extending miles beyond the factories where they are emitted.
In addition, unprecedented expansion of unconventional natural gas development using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the Shell Chemical ethane cracker facility proposed for Monaca, Beaver County, are examples of new and potential sources of hazardous air pollutants identified in the report.
“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 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.”