This was written by Don Hopey. It originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: 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.
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.