Kids in Southwestern Pennsylvania are exposed to carcinogenic coke oven emissions at shockingly higher rates than the rest of the country
"Kids breathe about four times as much air as adults, so they have proportionately more of these chemicals in their bodies."
Editor's note: This is the third story in our series on cancer and air pollution in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Credit: Tazz Jones/Facebook<p>The other girl in the photo was 5-year-old Maliya Jones, also a Pittsburgh resident. Her mother, Tazz Jones, snapped the candid picture and wrote, "This is the perfect example of love" when sharing it on Facebook.</p><p>Tazz <a href="https://www.today.com/health/photo-hug-shared-two-girls-fighting-cancer-goes-viral-t23361" target="_blank">expressed hope</a> that the girls would stay friends as they got older and have the photo to commemorate the moment they met and the difficulties they'd both overcome.</p><p>"Unfortunately," Kristin told EHN, "Maliya passed away from her childhood cancer. Throughout the course of Madelina's treatment, she made a lot of friends who weren't able to defeat it."</p><p>After a long, difficult journey, Madelina is now a healthy, happy kindergarten student. She takes ballet and gymnastics, and loves riding her bike, playing outside with her older sister, and swimming.</p><p>Kristin is grateful every time another one of Madelina's regular cancer scans comes back negative. </p><p>But she refuses to forget what they went through—she still works with families of other kids who are fighting cancer, and raises awareness about the prevalence of the disease among children.</p>
Madelina DeLuca is now a healthy, happy kindergarten student. (Credit: Kristin DeLuca)<p>"It's something that happens more frequently than we were first aware of," she said. "Especially, it seems, in the Pittsburgh region."</p><p>Southwestern Pennsylvania is, in fact, a <a href="https://www.ehn.org/pittsburgh-cancer-air-pollution-2623207335.html" target="_self">hotspot for cancer</a>. Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, is in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties for risk of cancer caused by air pollution, and children, with their still-developing bodies, are particularly vulnerable to cancer risk from exposures to airborne carcinogens.</p><p><span></span>An EHN analysis of the EPA's most recent National Air Toxics Assessment data shows that kids in Allegheny County are exposed to higher levels of a number of cancer-causing chemicals—including diesel particulate matter, formaldehyde, benzene, arsenic, naphthalene, and in particular, coke oven emissions—than kids in most of the U.S. as a direct result of industrial polluters in the region.<br></p><p>One of these polluters, U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works, is responsible for a lot of these airborne carcinogens. The company has dominated headlines lately due to <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2019/04/01/steel-coke-clairton-emissions-violation-fine-health-environment/stories/201904010066" target="_blank">escalating fines</a> for air pollution violations, <a href="https://www.ehn.org/pittsburghs-asthma-epidemic-and-the-fight-to-stop-it-2575098934.html" target="_self">childhood asthma near the plant</a>, and increasingly tense <a href="https://www.ehn.org/residents-shout-down-oil-and-gas-execs-over-fracking-at-us-steel-mill-2633068424.html" target="_self">community protests.</a></p><p>The problem has gotten so bad that environmental groups including Earthjustice, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, and the Sierra Club <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2019/groups-sue-trump-s-epa-for-coke-oven-cancer-pollution" target="_blank">filed a lawsuit</a> against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on April 15 for not properly regulating coke oven emissions across the country, specifically citing ongoing pollution at the Clairton Coke Works as one of the reasons for the suit.<br></p><p>In 2005, the EPA issued regulations for coke oven batteries, but agency representatives admitted at the time that they didn't actually know whether the regulations were adequate to protect the health of communities nearby. The EPA promised to further review the regulations, but 14 years later, nothing has happened. </p><p>Despite the ongoing media attention directed toward U.S. Steel's legacy of pollution in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the effect of the carcinogens the company pumps into the air on the region's most vulnerable population—children—is often left out of the conversation. </p><p>"Children's developing cells and biological systems are also more sensitive to many carcinogens than adults' are," Dr. Philip Landrigan, pediatrician, epidemiologist and director of the Global Public Health Program and the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at Boston College, told EHN.</p>
“Even at very low doses, bad things can happen.”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTM5Mzk3NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDUzNTExMn0.EjAdL72CCccSXXxoSfn18AnM0mWNOREjgVImVEjEaVU/img.jpg?width=980" id="6e319" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2c2bbc94d482f4a972c32253fad72632" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
“There’s no way an increase that rapid can be genetic”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTM5NDA2MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzOTA0OTIyM30.6PrD4zgusqTAe6ycSUIjRGaiYX0ElIA6tvWtkvBRruQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="f42c6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="43b8e486f3b1fe90219ed8bc17c530c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Some good news<p>The good news is that medical advances have made us much better at treating childhood cancer. </p><p>While survival rates for some rare childhood cancers remains low, the survival rate for leukemia is around 85 percent. Brain cancer, the second-most common childhood cancer, has a <a href="https://www.cancer.org/cancer/brain-spinal-cord-tumors-children/detection-diagnosis-staging/survival-rates.html" target="_blank">similarly high</a> survival rate. The overall 5-year survival rate for children and teens with non-metastasized Ewing sarcoma—the rare cancer there's a cluster of in Washington County—is about 70 percent.</p><p>As a result of both the influx in childhood cancer and ever-improving medical advances, one in every<a href="https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/2014-childhood-cancer-statistics-10-key-facts.html" target="_blank"> 530 American adults</a> ages 20-39 is now a childhood cancer survivor.</p><p>But treatment and survival are difficult. These children often lose their hair and endure side effects like nausea, vomiting, pain, behavioral problems and anxiety. The emotional impact to both the patients and their families can last a lifetime.</p><p>"Surviving cancer is life-changing for the patient and the family," Dr. Erika Friehling, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Children's Hospital, where Madelina DeLuca received her treatment, told EHN.</p><p>"Even seeing patients that completed treatment five to 10 years ago, they still carry many of those emotions. Some parents talk about almost a PTSD phenomenon coming back to Children's Hospital," Friehling said.</p><p>In addition to the emotional impacts, many kids who survive cancer experience health problems related to treatment or survivorship: <a href="https://curesearch.org/Childhood-Cancer-Statistics" target="_blank">60 percent of children</a> who survive the disease experience health problems like infertility, heart failure and secondary cancers later in life as a result.</p><p>"We're also learning more about the neurocognitive impacts of undergoing chemotherapy as a child," Friehling said. "Specifically for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, we're seeing some struggles in learning and developing more complex processing skills as kids get older, so we're beginning to put an emphasis on making sure those patients get extra attention as they're being treated or after being cured."</p><p>Kristin DeLuca said Madelina gets tested for heart problems and cognitive issues regularly since completing her treatment.</p><p>"There are a gazillion unfortunate side effects," she said. "Fortunately we haven't encountered any other than some very minor developmental delays...but as she continues to grow, they're definitely something we need to watch out for."</p>
How parents can protect their kids<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTM5NDA4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjU1MzA0OH0.KDTjoxT8MSchy0JFPwp6ByG9tgppVyNKbQ7LSTd75oA/img.jpg?width=980" id="e930a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="303b0c621adc2443e33c30ae312acd35" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Madelina DeLuca (left). (Credit: Kristina DeLuca)<p>Children, like adults, are exposed to carcinogens in the environment in three ways: They consume them in the things they eat, absorb them through their skin, and inhale them in the air they breathe. Exposure to some carcinogens is inevitable, but there are also concrete steps parents can take to reduce their children's' cancer risk.</p> <p>"If you can afford to do so, eat organic," Landrigan said. "We know families that eat organic have substantially lower levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies than people who eat so-called 'conventional' food. Parents can also minimize the use of chemicals in the home and especially pesticides in the lawn or garden."</p> <p>He also suggested working with local schools to encourage them to minimize the use of chemicals in their cleaning products and on the playing fields—a task already being tackled by the Pittsburgh nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, which provides resources to schools with the aim of limiting the toxic exposures kids encounter in their learning environments. </p> <p>Parents can also minimize the number of carcinogens kids absorb through their skin by buying personal care products that have been <a href="https://www.ewg.org/ewgverified/about-the-mark.php" target="_blank">verified as safe</a> by an independent third party, and can help raise awareness about environmental exposures and cancer by referring their kids' pediatricians to the CDC's online <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/emes/health_professionals/index.html" target="_blank">education module for environmental health</a>, which counts toward required Continuing Medical Education credits.</p> <p>While those things can help, every child living in Southwestern Pennsylvania has to breathe the region's air. </p> <p>"When talking about broader hazards that affect the whole region like air pollution in Southwestern Pennsylvania," Landrigan said, "the only solution is political. Unless these industries suddenly decide to act like adults and regulate their own emissions—which hasn't happened historically—then regulators are going to have to step in and be the parent."</p> <p>Regulators have increased their efforts to do that in recent months. The Allegheny County Health Department fined U.S. Steel for excessive pollution at Clairton Coke Works <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2019/04/01/steel-coke-clairton-emissions-violation-fine-health-environment/stories/201904010066" target="_blank">three times</a> in less than a year. But there's still a role for policymakers to play in improving the region's air quality to protect kids from carcinogens.</p> <p>"Individual doctors can speak out about the hazards and exert their influence, as many courageously do," Landrigan said, "but ultimately, elected representatives are going to have to stand up for children and do the right thing."</p>