One environmental group has consistently advocated for stricter limits than what the agency is recommending.
Kristina covers environmental health and justice issues in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. She has received recognition or awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Institute of Health Care Management, the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Science Center, and the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) for her reporting on these topics.
Prior to joining EHN, Kristina covered issues related to environmental and social justice as a freelancer for a wide range of digital media outlets including Slate, Vice, Women's Health, MTV News, The Advocate, CNN, and Bustle. She is also the co-president and co-founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists.
She lives in Pittsburgh, where she spends much of her free time kayaking the city's iconic three rivers, consuming coffee and eating adventurously.
Reach her at email@example.com
PITTSBURGH—A group of local physicians, researchers, community advocates, and elected officials released a declaration today calling for action on cancer-causing pollutants in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The declaration, signed by more than 30 local organizations and 25 individuals so far, explains that rates of several kinds of cancer are "strikingly high" in the region—higher than state and national rates—with disproportionate burdens on people of color and marginalized communities. It calls on leaders across a diverse range of sectors—local businesses and elected officials, foundations and nonprofits, research institutions and health care facilities—to take concrete actions aimed at reducing people's exposure to cancer-causing chemicals in the region.
"We all know someone who has been affected by cancer, whether it's an immediate family member or a partner's cousin or a friend," Alyssa Lyon, a co-author of the declaration and director of the Black Environmental Collective, an environmental and racial equity advocacy group, told EHN. "This is an issue that permeates everyone's communities and sits right at the intersection of equity and environmental justice."
While there are local initiatives aimed at reducing smoking and promoting healthy lifestyles, the declaration's authors note other factors play a role in cancer rates. A recent study estimated that even if everyone in Allegheny County (which encompasses Pittsburgh) had quit smoking 20 years ago, lung cancer rates would only be 11 percent lower—due in part to the region's long-standing problems with carcinogenic pollution in air and water.
The group that authored the declaration, the Cancer & Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania, grew out of a national symposium on cancer and the environment hosted in Pittsburgh in 2019.
"I've never experienced anything quite like what happened at the end of that symposium," Dani Wilson, executive director of Our Clubhouse, a Pittsburgh-based cancer patient support organization, told EHN. "After learning what we did, no one there wanted to just walk away."
Two years and one pandemic later, the group is calling for "bold action on a cancer prevention strategy that is often overlooked: reducing environmental chemicals that are put into our air, water, food, homes, workplaces, and products," according to the declaration.
"We want this to be transformational—not just a promise toward a better future, but an actual blueprint for a way forward," Lyon said. "If everyone does their own small part, we can collectively create big changes."
The declaration states that residents of southwestern Pennsylvania are "exposed unnecessarily to environmental carcinogens," and explains that while exposure to any one pollutant may only pose a small increased risk of cancer for an individual, widespread exposures can result in a significant rise of cancer cases in the region.
Among those exposures they list:
"These issues didn't just go away during the pandemic," Olivia Benson, chief operating officer for the Forbes Funds, a foundation that supports southwestern Pennsylvania nonprofits, told EHN. "We know these types of environmental exposures disproportionately affect marginalized people and people of color."
The Forbes Funds signed onto the declaration, but Benson signed as an individual, too. Her grandmother and an aunt who lived in southwestern Pennsylvania died "too young" as a result of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, respectively. She pointed to research showing that Black women in southwestern Pennsylvania have some of the highest mortality rates in the country.
"I can't help but wonder, if environmental justice and racial equity were centered here...would they still be here today?"
The declaration references 15 scientific studies, and the group also published a companion document with more in-depth science.
"Everything in the declaration is driven by science," Polly Hoppin, one of the researchers who helped organize the 2019 symposium on cancer and the environment that spurred the creation of the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania, told EHN. Hoppin is a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Protection Agency and the program director at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts. She also serves as a facilitator for the Network.
In the science document, the authors used data from the National Cancer Institute's cancer registry to describe national trends in cancer rates and show how locally cancer rates generally mirror national trends, but several cancer types associated with environmental exposures are higher than state and national rates.
These include elevations in lung cancer, leukemias, and thyroid cancer across multiple counties in the region (although not always in both males and females), and elevated rates of childhood cancers in Greene County, Washington County, and Westmoreland counties.
The document points to research showing that among the more than 200 air pollutants detected in emissions from oil and gas wells, nearly two dozen are considered known or suspected carcinogens (an investigation into the cause of numerous cases of rare childhood cancers in the region is ongoing).
Polly Hoppin at the 2019 cancer and environment symposium. (Credit: Kristina Marusic for EHN)
The science companion document also delves into the most recent science on the ways exposure to air pollution, water pollution, pesticides, and carcinogens in consumer products can cause cancer to develop, then reviews the specific exposures happening in southwestern Pennsylvania.
For example, it references data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Toxics Assessment showing that Allegheny is in the worst 4 percent of counties in the nation for cancer risk from all forms of toxic air pollution (including traffic and industrial emissions), and in the worst 1 percent of counties nationwide for cancer risk specifically from air pollution caused by industrial manufacturing—and notes that nearly 90 percent of those emissions come from U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works facility.
In a discussion about the region's drinking water, the science companion document points to research showing that public drinking utilities in Pittsburgh and its suburbs frequently report potentially dangerous levels of suspected carcinogens like bromodichloromethane, hexavalent chromium and chloroform. In rural parts of the state, there have been more than 300 confirmed cases of private drinking water wells being contaminated by the oil and gas industry.
Because these issues are so widespread and come from such diverse sources, Benson said, no single group can tackle the problem on their own.
"This is a problem that requires system-level change to address," she said.
The declaration lays out a series of priorities for diverse groups, including:
The authors believe southwestern Pennsylvania is uniquely positioned to make meaningful changes to reduce local cancer rates because of the region's high volume of research institutions, healthcare facilities, and effective nonprofit organizations.
Lyon noted that Pittsburgh is among the top metropolitan areas in the U.S. for both number of charitable foundations and per capita investment by foundations.
"Pittsburgh is so small that means we all have one degree of separation from the top person at a foundation," she said. "That means we can afford to put all the right minds in a room together and figure out what equity for everyone in the city really looks like."
Banner photo: 2019 cancer and environment symposium. (Credit: Kristina Marusic for EHN)
PITTSBURGH—It's been three months since EHN published Fractured, a groundbreaking investigation into the personal costs of fracking for western Pennsylvania families.
The investigation looked at air samples, water samples, and urine samples, and found that five families who live near oil and gas wells are exposed to higher-than-average levels of a long list of toxic chemicals used by the industry including benzene, toluene, and butylcyclohexane. Our study included children and found evidence that they were being exposed to harmful chemicals at levels up to 91 times as high as exposure levels seen in the average American.
Exposure to these chemicals is linked to a range of health effects including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, organ damage, reproductive harm, and increased cancer risk. EHN's investigation was the first study to measure exposure to these types of chemicals in people living near fracking wells in Pennsylvania.
In the months since, a group of state lawmakers have called on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to take action in response to our findings, and we've asked many other politicians to share their perspective on the study. Activist groups and readers have shared their responses to the series and let us know how they're using the data to take action.
EHN checked in with the five families who participated in the research to ask what's changed since the series came out, how they've been using the reporting to advocate for their communities, and what they hope happens next.
Ryan was nine years old at the time of the study, and one of his urine samples contained a biomarker for benzene at a level more than 28 times as high as that of the average adult cigarette smoker. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
"To see Ryan at such high levels at his age, I don't even have words for it," Bryan Latkanich told EHN. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
EHN shared the results of our air monitoring, drinking water analysis, and urine sample analysis with the families privately prior to the publication of our stories. Still, some said seeing those test results published publicly brought up many of the same feelings they experienced looking at them privately all over again.
"It was gut-wrenching," Bryan Latkanich told EHN. "It made me sick again to see the levels of exposure that my son has been subjected to. Just absolutely sick to my stomach that they would risk my child's life and my life going after profit."
Bryan and his son Ryan used to have a fracking well 400 feet from their home and had some of the highest levels of exposure among the families in the study. Ryan was nine years old at the time of the study, and one of his urine samples contained a biomarker for benzene at a level more than 28 times as high as that of the average adult cigarette smoker. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
"To see Ryan at such high levels at his age, I don't even have words for it," Latkanich said.
Jane Worthington, whose grandchildren also had high levels of exposure to harmful chemicals, said she had mixed feelings when the stories came out.
"It was bittersweet," Worthington told EHN. "On one hand, it can be difficult having everyone know about your family's hardships so publicly. My granddaughter is a very private person, so she had a bit of a hard time with it when people at school saw the article. On the other hand, I was so glad the series finally brought to light that we're not the only ones being impacted, that this is a serious problem across the board, and that the industry should be held accountable."
Our study included children and found evidence that they were being exposed to harmful chemicals at levels up to 91 times as high as exposure levels seen in the average American. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
"I have some very supportive relatives and I have some that have been very critical of us for speaking out about these issues," Jane Worthington (left) told EHN. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
Lois Bower-Bjornson said she mostly felt relief when her family's story was published. EHN's investigation found harmful chemicals like benzene, naphthalene, and toluene in air monitoring and water samples taken from the Bower-Bjornson household, and in urine samples for Lois, her husband, and their four children.
"I was really, really glad when the series finally came out," she told EHN.
"I was surprised by the reactions I heard from some people I'd told about the study before the stories came out," she added. "It was like they didn't really hear how bad it was until they actually read the story, then they were shocked and apologetic. I heard a lot of, 'Oh my God, I'm so sorry this is happening to your family.'"
Bower-Bjornson also said she sent the series to members of her family, who reacted differently depending on their political views.
"I think the hardest part for me was that most of the family members I sent it to didn't really acknowledge it," she said. "I know darn well that some of them didn't even read the whole thing, which was disheartening. You'd expect people who are close to you to at least be willing to read your story… but all in all the responses I did get were really positive, and I didn't hear anyone say anything like, 'Oh that's not true.' People who didn't want to hear it just ignored it."
Worthington also said the reactions from some people in her family were disappointing.
"I have some very supportive relatives and I have some that have been very critical of us for speaking out about these issues," she said. "The unsupportive ones make lots of money working for the oil and gas industry and live in expensive homes and drive matching SUVs, so they're not going to change their minds. The supportive ones said, 'I'm so glad you got the story out.'"
Gillian Graber lives further away from fracking wells than the Bower-Bjornsons, the Worthingtons, or the Latkaniches, but EHN's study found that she and her family were still being exposed to harmful chemicals. Graber said she shared the stories on social media but didn't send them directly to her family members.
"I'd be interested to see what my parents think of it," she said. "I think my mom would probably be really upset, but I don't think it would change her political views. It's funny how people can compartmentalize issues...I just want to tell her, 'if you don't think things like this should be happening, you're voting for the wrong people.'"
"I'd be interested to see what my parents think of it," she said. "I think my mom would probably be really upset, but I don't think it would change her political views," Gillian Graber told EHN. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
In the weeks after the series was published, Bower-Bjornson sent it to dozens of journalists and lawmakers.
"I sent it to pretty much every reporter, politician, and researcher I know either via text or email," she said. "What I got back from a lot of them was, 'I saw this, it's terrible that this is happening, we want to do something to follow up.'"
Her efforts directly contributed to a group of 34 state lawmakers issuing a public letter calling on Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to take action to protect the health of Pennsylvanians and conduct the same type of testing done for Fractured statewide. Gov. Wolf has thus far declined to commit to any action in response to the letter, but said in a statement to EHN that his administration "stand[s] ready to assist the legislature in developing more stringent measures to protect the public, as further regulation of the industry would require approval from the federal government or state legislature."
Worthington shared the series with one of her local township supervisors who frequently votes in favor of oil and gas development, and with a local group doing advocacy work related to cases of rare childhood cancer, which some residents fear is related to fracking.
After she learned about her family's exposures and discovered that her home was surrounded by dozens of conventional oil and gas wells through EHN's study, Trafford resident Ann LeCuyer set out to determine whether any of those wells had been inspected recently. She used publicly available data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to look up production and inspection reports for the 20 wells closest to her home.
"It turned out a lot of those wells hadn't been inspected in 10 or 15 years," LeCuyer told EHN. She called the DEP to request inspections be conducted for those wells. [Any idea if they are going to and/or what their response was?]
Upon request, LeCuyer said, the DEP inspected a few of the wells, but the vast majority of them remain un-inspected, which she finds frustrating. In 2019 (the last year for which inspection results have been published), the DEP conducted less than half as many inspections of conventional oil and gas wells than it did of fracking wells, but found nearly double the number of violations.
"I wish the DEP was doing a better job of that in general, and I also wish they would actively try and figure out why we're being exposed to everything we're being exposed to here."
The wells on Latkanich's property have been plugged, but his home is still surrounded by other fracking wells. (Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News)
The people who participated in the study said they remain hopeful that Fractured will pave the way for change.
"I hope that next someone will do the same kind of study on a massive scale so I can invite everybody I know into it," Bower-Bjornson said. "When I was telling people about my results I had so many people asking where they could get the same testing done. There are so many people here who are afraid their families are being exposed to harmful chemicals, and they deserve answers."
The wells on Latkanich's property have been plugged, but his home is still surrounded by other fracking wells and he still worries about air pollution and soil and water contamination.
"Hopefully we can get a new house elsewhere where we can actually drink our water, breathe our air, and plant ground that's not contaminated," he said. "That's really what we're after—to be made whole somewhere else."
"You just can't continue to ruin people's lives and not be held responsible for it," he added. "When people get sick and it can be traced back to them with enough documentation, they're going to have a problem."
Worthington said that seeing new oil and gas regulations pass at the federal level has made her hopeful.
"I hope similar changes will also spread midstream and be applied to the oil fields themselves," she said, referring to steps taken by the Biden administration aimed at giving states more power to regulate oil and gas pipelines, cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, halting new oil and gas leases on federal lands, reversing the Trump administration's rollback on methane regulations, and eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels.
In May, Pennsylvania Senate Democrats proposed eight new bills aimed at regulating the industry more carefully and increasing transparency.
The bills would, among other things, require new fracking wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes (up from the current setback of 500 feet) and 5,000 feet from schools and hospitals, require trucks transporting radioactive fracking waste to be labeled as hazardous, require fracking companies to disclose all of the chemicals they use, increase air and water monitoring near well pads and other infrastructure, and allow the Attorney General's office to bring criminal cases against fracking companies without a referral from another government agency (currently a referral is required).
The bills (Senate Bills 650-657) have been referred to the Pennsylvania Senate Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy for consideration, but state Democrats face an uphill battle to get them passed in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
"I really hope that more lawmakers will see Fractured and continue to think about reform," said Graber, who serves as executive director of the environmental advocacy group ProtectPT. "I'd be really happy if they'd put me out of a job."
Banner photo: Jane Worthington (left) and Lois Bower-Bjornson (right) in 2019. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
PITTSBURGH—Even if everyone in Allegheny County had quit smoking 20 years ago, lung cancer rates in the region would only have dropped by 11 percent, according to a new analysis, which suggests that air pollution plays a significant role in western Pennsylvania cancer rates.
The analysis, published as a letter to the editor in the journal Environmental Health, used existing data on smoking and cancer rates in 612 counties across the U.S. to estimate what would have happened if everyone in those counties had quit smoking 20 years ago.
The researchers used census data and county-specific data on cancer rates and smoking to estimate how many cancer cases were caused by smoking, then used statistical modeling to estimate how cancer rates would have changed over time if smoking was eliminated.
They found that in some counties lung cancer rates would have declined by more than 80 percent, while other counties would have seen a decline of less than 15 percent, with an average reduction of 62 percent. Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, would have seen a decline of just 11 percent, putting it in the bottom 2 percent of counties when it comes to the potential for quitting smoking to lower lung cancer rates.
"Very few rural counties had a high residual cancer risk after removing smoking risk, which indicates that air pollution is likely an important piece of this puzzle," David Kriebel, a professor and director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts and one of the study's authors, told EHN.
Previous research has already put Allegheny County in the top 2 percent of counties nationwide for cancer risk specifically caused by air pollution. Radon exposure is the second leading cause of lung cancer nationally and is a known factor in western Pennsylvania, as are traffic emissions and unusually high levels of industrial pollution—particularly from coke ovens used by the steel industry, which generate highly carcinogenic emissions. Cancer-causing chemicals in the region's drinking water could be another contributing factor.
The new analysis follows a 2020 paper published in the journal Environmental Health that looked at the impacts of smoking cessation on the rates of lung cancer and 11 other smoking-associated cancers (including esophageal cancer, cancer of the larynx, and stomach and bladder cancer) nationwide. That study, which was conducted by the same group of researchers at Boise State University and the University of Massachusetts, found that about 60 percent of smoking-associated cancers would not have gone away even if no one in the U.S. had smoked cigarettes for the last 20 years, suggesting that environmental factors play a larger role than previously thought.
When the researchers presented their early findings for that study at a symposium on cancer and the environment in Pittsburgh in 2019, local health advocates asked them to look at the same data specifically for lung cancer in Allegheny County. The researchers did, and also created a tool that any U.S. county can use to do the same type of analysis.
They said they hope the tool will help public health departments in places like Allegheny County assess how much of their efforts aimed at reducing local lung cancer rates should be directed toward smoking-related initiatives versus cleaning up the air and reducing other environmental exposures to carcinogens.
"Smoking is obviously a hugely important risk factor when it comes to lung cancer," said Polly Hoppin, one of the study's authors, former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Environmental Protection Agency, and program director at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts.
"Lowering smoking rates goes a long way toward reducing cancer rates, and we don't want to detract from the importance of those efforts in any way," Hoppin told EHN. "But our analysis does suggest that it's not the only important factor, and that in some places putting resources toward reducing air pollution and other environmental exposures could go even further toward reducing the region's lung cancer rates."
Edgar Thomson Mill in western Pennsylvania. (Credit: Mark Dixon/flickr)
The researchers' previous analysis found that even if Allegheny county eliminated smoking entirely, it would still be in the highest 10 percent of all U.S. counties for these cancers. But most current cancer prevention strategies in the county (and in the U.S. as a whole) are focused on individual behaviors: diet, exercise, and smoking.
"There's no question that these are important causes of cancer," Kriebel said, "but we're concerned over the degree to which we focus on smoking, obesity and exercise may lead people to conclude that the solution to the cancer epidemic lies solely in individual actions and lose sight of how socioeconomic and political decisions could be made that would also help prevent cancer."
Doug Myers, a professor at Boise State University and another of the study's authors, pointed out that other types of cancer that aren't associated with smoking could also be reduced by lowering environmental exposures to cancer-causing chemicals.
"There are lots of other cancer types that aren't related to smoking, and our analysis doesn't address those at all," he said. "So the impacts of lowering environmental exposures on reducing overall cancer rates would likely be even greater."
EHN asked the Allegheny County Health Department whether they had reviewed the study, what portion of their cancer prevention resources are allocated toward smoking cessation vs. environmental factors, and how they're working to protect the residents of Allegheny County from carcinogens in the local environment. A spokesperson wrote they "have no comment to offer."
"If you remove the progress we've seen as a result of people quitting smoking, we've made no headway whatsoever in the so-called war on cancer [at the national level]", Kriebel said. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't focus on tobacco control. But it does mean it's a big mistake to stop there."
Banner photo credit: Revival Vape/flickr
EHN conducted a two-year study that found Pennsylvania families living near fracking wells are being exposed to high levels of harmful industrial chemicals. Our findings are documented in the four-part series Fractured: The body burden of living near fracking.
A few weeks after the series was published, a group of 34 lawmakers from the state House and Senate issued a public letter to Governor Tom Wolf, Acting Secretary of the Department of Health Alison Beam, and Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection Patrick McDonnell calling on them to take action in response to our findings.
"[The findings] are alarming in terms of the effects on the long-term health and safety of these residents," the lawmakers wrote. "Does this administration believe it has adequately protected Pennsylvanians from the harms of fracking? Does this administration honestly believe that fracking is safe for our families? The people of Pennsylvania deserve answers to these questions."
The full letter is available here. This is a complete list of the politicians who signed it:
|Rep. Jessica Benham (D) District 36 (Allegheny County)||Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D) District 184 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Joe Hohenstein (D) District 177 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Leanne Krueger (D) District 161 (Delaware County)||Sen. Steve Santasarieo (D) District 10 (Bucks County)||Rep. Greg Vitali (D) District 166 (Delaware and Montgomery Counties)|
|Sen. Jim Brewster (D) District 45 (Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties)||Sen.Wayne Fontana (D) District 42 (Allegheny County)||Sen. Vincent Hughes (D) District 7 (Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties)||Rep. Summer Lee (D) District 34 (Allegheny County)||Sen. Nikil Saval (D) District 1 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Perry Warren (D) District 31 (Bucks County)|
|Rep. Tim Briggs (D) District 149 (Montgomery County)||Rep. Danielle Friel-Otten (D) District 155 (Chester County)||Rep. Sara Innamorato (D) District 21 (Allegheny County)||Sen. Katie Muth (D) District 44 (Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties)||Rep. Pete Schweyer (D) District 22 (Lehigh County)||Rep. Joe Webster (D) District 150 (Montgomery County)|
|Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D) District 17 (Delaware and Montgomery Counties)||Rep. Nancy Guenst (D) District 152 (Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties)||Rep. Mary Issacson (D) District 175 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D) District 57 (Westmoreland County)||Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D) District 157 (Chester and Montgomery Counties)||Sen. Lindsey Williams (D) District 38 (Allegheny County)|
|Sen. Maria Collett (D) District 12 (Bucks and Montgomery Counties)||Rep. Dianne Herrin (D) District 156 (Chester County)||Sen. Tim Kearny (D) District 26 (Chester and Delaware Counties)||Rep. Christopher Rabb (D) District 200 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Mike Sturla (D) District 96 (Lancaster County)||Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D) District 2 (Philadelphia County)|
|Sen. Carolyn Comitta (D) District 19 (Chester County)||Rep. Carol Hill-Evans (D) District 95 (York County)||Rep. Rick Krajewski (D) District 188 (Philadelphia County)||Rep. Ben Sanchez (D) District 153 (Montgomery County)|
About a month after the series was published we began reaching out to Pennsylvania politicians who didn't sign the letter to hear their thoughts on our findings and ask what they're doing to protect Pennsylvania residents from harmful pollution from the oil and gas industry.
Some were eager to talk. Some ignored us entirely. Others politely (or not so politely) blew us off. A few interviews are still pending. We'll update this list as responses continue rolling in, so if you're a politician or policy-maker interested in sharing your thoughts, please get in touch.
Here are the responses we've gotten so far from a range of regional and state politicians, along with their contact information for constituents who'd like to follow up (see sample language here):
Banner photo: Pennsylvania State Sen. Gene Yaw (top left), State Rep. and Pittsburgh Mayoral Candidate Ed Gainey (top center), Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (right), State Sen. Katie Muth (bottom left), and Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi (bottom center) Photo credit: Creative Commons/EHN
Living among fracking wells is linked to higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to heart attacks, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Research, compared heart attack rates in Pennsylvania counties with fracking to demographically similar counties in New York where fracking is banned.
"There's a large body of literature linking air pollution with poor cardiovascular health and heart attacks, but this is really the first study to look at this from a population level related to fracking," Elaine Hill, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center and one of the study's co-authors, told EHN.
Hill and her colleagues looked at hospitalization and mortality records in 47 counties in New York and Pennsylvania from 2005-2014 (the most recent data available at the time the study was initiated) and found that heart attack hospitalization rates were higher on the Pennsylvania side of the border by 1.4–2.8 percent, depending on the average age and density of fracking wells in a given county. Living near a higher density of wells translated to a greater risk of heart attacks.
They also found that middle-aged men living on the Pennsylvania side of the border were 5.4 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than their counterparts in New York. The authors speculate that this link may be stronger in middle-aged men because they're more likely to work in the industry and have higher levels of exposure as a result.
The researchers were not able to control for lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking due to a lack of data, but they did assess demographics at the county-level to ensure they were looking at communities with similar economic and racial makeups on both sides of the border. They analyzed different age groups separately across the counties, and also adjusted for coal production in each county (another factor that can increase heart attack risk) and for rates of access to health insurance, which may influence whether people go to the hospital when having a heart attack.
Drilling rig in PotterCounty, PA. (Credit: Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2019)
While numerous studies have compared economic differences between the two states, this is the first to use this "natural experiment" to compare human health outcomes on both sides of the border. A 2020 study conducted by veterinarians similarly found that horses raised near fracking wells on the Pennsylvania side of the border had higher rates of a rare birth defect than horses raised by the same farmer on the New York side.
Fracking and the increased truck traffic created by the industry raise levels of air pollution significantly, and exposure to air pollution raises heart attack risk. Living near fracking wells is also linked to heightened stress levels, which is another contributor to cardiovascular disease.
Alina Denham, the study's lead author, said their findings are in line with previous research. She pointed to a 2019 paper that found higher levels of physical markers associated with heart attack risk in people who live near fracking. Still she said, "Additional research is needed to figure out exactly how exposure to fracking wells leads to increased heart attack risk."
Fracking is more concentrated in rural communities, many of which lack health care access. The study's authors speculated that this could also contribute to worse cardiovascular health outcomes. Hill said she hopes policymakers will use their findings to create oil and gas policies that protect public health.
"I'm aware that my previous work influenced the ban in New York," Hill said. "I think there are also other policy decisions that can let the industry continue to thrive and let people continue to have these jobs while also ensuring that everybody is more protected. Things like mitigating emissions, recycling waste water—even using electric vehicles instead of diesel to transport materials. There's much room for improvement."
Banner photo: Scott Blauvelt, Director of JKLM Energy Regulatory Affairs and hydrogeologist, explains the release of a plume of pollution to local drinking water supplies from a fracking well pad operated by JKLM in Coudersport, PA. (Credit: © Joshua Boaz Pribanic for Public Herald)
PITTSBURGH—A recent study found that people with asthma who live near a U.S. Steel facility experienced worsened symptoms following a 2018 fire that damaged pollution controls—and that even prior to the fire, a trend of lower lung function was observed in people living close to the plant.
About a week after that study came out, U.S. Steel announced it would renege on its promise to invest $1.5 billion in equipment upgrades that would have substantially lowered harmful emissions at its Pittsburgh-area plants while providing the region with up to 1,000 additional union jobs.
The project was announced to much fanfare in 2019, but in the fall of 2020 during a quarterly earnings call, U.S. Steel's CEO David Burritt said of the funds promised for the project, "The key word in all of this is really the optionality. We can decide to put it in Mon Valley. We can decide to put it somewhere else."
U.S. Steel exercised that "optionality" to purchase a non-union steel making facility in Arkansas that already has better pollution controls in place. It has also promised to eventually shut down some of the most polluting portions of its Pittsburgh operations, which would result in lower emissions. A U.S. Steel spokesperson said reduced operations will take place over the next couple years to avoid job loss.*
"We have invested approximately $400 million since 2018 to secure our future in the Steel City. As we set new horizons for our future, we remain honored that Pittsburgh is our home," a U.S Steel spokesperson wrote in a statement to EHN. "U. S. Steel began its journey making steel in Pittsburgh, and today we optimistically continue this journey with a bright vision for the next generation of sustainable steelmaking."
Health advocates, however, say the new study and this shift in plans epitomize the company's history in the region, revealing an ongoing pattern of sickened residents, ongoing pollution, and broken promises.
"U.S. Steel had the capital to do these projects and they chose to invest the money elsewhere despite making a promise to people in this region," Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a coalition of more than 40 environmental advocacy groups in the region, told EHN. "They have a long history of making similar big promises to our communities and then not following through with them."
Christine Panaiia and her family. "It's mind blowing to me that a company of that size would choose not to care for the people in the immediate community living around its facilities." (Credit: Christine Panaiia)
U.S. Steel's Clairton Coke Works plant, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh, converts coal into coke (a key ingredient in steelmaking) by heating it to extremely high temperatures in large ovens called batteries. It's the largest such facility in the U.S. The company is frequently fined—and sued—for illegally high emissions from the site, which contain chemicals including formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic, and sulfur dioxide, which often makes the region stink of rotten eggs. Exposure to coke oven emissions is linked to cancer, COPD, heart disease, and asthma.
In lieu of the promised equipment upgrades, U.S. Steel announced that in 2023 it will shut down the three oldest, most polluting coke batteries at the Clairton Coke Works, stating in its "open letter to our Pittsburgh family" that the decision is aimed at reducing the company's carbon footprint. The shift will reduce coke production at the facility by about 17 percent, which will also lead to a reduction in emissions (though the extent of that reduction has not yet been quantified).
"I'd look forward to the reduction in air pollution, but 2023 is another couple years down the road where they're continuing to allow toxics to enter into the environment and harm the people who live here," Christine Panaiia, who lives in Jefferson Hills, about four miles from the Clairton Coke Works, told EHN.
Panaiia, a mother of two teenage girls who worked as a project manager for BNY Mellon for 22 years until COVID-19 hit, developed asthma as an adult—soon after moving to Jefferson Hills about 10 years ago. She signed up for an asthma registry through the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's asthma clinic.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health used data from that registry for their recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, which determined that asthma patients living within 10 miles of Clairton Coke Works had an 80 percent increased risk of worsened symptoms following a fire on Christmas Eve in 2018 that damaged pollution controls and lead to illegally high levels of emissions for weeks afterwards.
On Christmas Day, 2018, Panaiia was preparing to host 10 members of her extended family for Christmas dinner when she started feeling sick.
"I was trying to get myself ready, get the house organized, and get the food ready, but as the day wore on I was having more and more difficulty breathing," she said. "I felt sluggish and winded and I had to turn to my rescue inhaler. I couldn't understand it—usually with my asthma it's more of a gradual buildup."
She pushed through her discomfort to host her family for the holiday and waited until the next day to call her doctor, who prescribed her a round of steroids to get her asthma under control. It wasn't until several weeks later, when someone from the asthma registry contacted her about it, that she found out about the fire and the increased pollution.
"I was extremely disappointed that I hadn't known about it sooner," Panaiia said. "I have friends in the area who are also asthma sufferers…I heard lots of similar stories from people who have asthma or have kids with asthma who were having trouble breathing right after the fire and had no idea why."
Panaiia and her friends weren't alone. Of the people surveyed by University of Pittsburgh researchers, only 44 percent had heard about the fire.
Smokestacks of US Steel's Clairton Coke Works are visible behind a row of homes in Clairton, PA, in 2018. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
"Keep in mind that these were all people who were already part of the registry, so they likely have a heightened awareness about their disease and its triggers," Dr. Sally Wenzel, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Asthma and Environmental Lung Health Institute and co-author of the study, told EHN. "I'd guess if you just talked to people on the street, even fewer people in those communities would have been aware that there was a fire and that there was heightened air pollution that could be harmful to their health."
Panaiia said she was frustrated by the news that U.S. Steel had canceled its plans to invest in better equipment at its Pittsburgh facilities.
"It's mind blowing to me that a company of that size would choose not to care for the people in the immediate community living around its facilities," she said. "Assuming they've been following the study the Asthma Institute released, you'd think they'd want to do right by folks who lived and worked at that facility."
The study conducted by Wenzel and her colleagues also found that prior to the fire, asthma patients who live closer to Clairton Coke Works generally had lower lung function than those who live further away.
"If we looked at that group that lived within the 10 mile circle of the plant and those outside, we saw there was a significant decrease in their baseline lung function," James Fabisiak, another co-author of the study and director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, told EHN. He noted that their sample size for this part of the research was small so further research is needed but added, "This implies that asthma severity may be worse for people who live in that particular area."
This is not the first study linking Clairton Coke Works to increased or worsened asthma. In a 2018 study of 1,200 school children, researchers found the asthma rate for kids in Clairton was 18 percent. The national average is 8 percent. Emissions from U.S. Steel's facilities also contribute to the region's higher than average cancer rates.
Several of the communities surrounding the Clairton Coke Works plant are considered environmental justice areas, which the state of Pennsylvania defines as census tracts where at least 20 percent of people live in poverty and/or at least 30 percent are people of color. Environmental and racial equity advocates in the region have cited the high levels of pollution experienced by these communities as an example of environmental injustice. Wenzel noted that their study doesn't include many of the residents in the region who are most at-risk.
"We noticed that in general people who came into the clinic to be seen were more advantaged from a socioeconomic standpoint than people who just filled out the survey," she said. "I think we need to remember that the most vulnerable people out there probably don't have time to come into the ivory tower to get their lung function tested or enroll in health registries, and we know that the most vulnerable people in these communities have worse health outcomes and higher mortality rates."
U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works. (Credit: Mark Dixon/flickr)
About a week before announcing that it would nix plans to upgrade its Pittsburgh facilities, U.S. Steel announced plans to pursue a goal of carbon neutrality by the year 2050 and a 25 percent reduction of its carbon footprint by the year 2030.
The Breathe Project said the plan is lacking, citing the fact that the announced plans don't follow Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting standards, the lack of involvement from community stakeholders in the decision-making process, the company's ongoing air quality violations, and U.S. Steel's recent opposition to proposed tightening of coke oven emission regulations during a public comment period.
They also pointed out that the industry has a long history of breaking its environmental promises.
Since as early as 1965, the company has violated clean air laws while continuously promising that it was on the verge of cleaning up its act. In 1975, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified the steel industry as the top industry that was failing to comply with the recently-passed Federal Clean Air Act, specifically citing U.S. Steel as a "problem polluter." A New York Times story from 1975 details the company's battles with federal, state, and county governments over pollution from the Clairton Coke Works—and many of the same pollution issues identified in that article persist today.
"They always identify an excuse. It might be a market downturn. This latest time it's blaming the health department for delays in permitting related to COVID-19 and blaming environmentalists for wanting to improve air quality," Mehalik said. "The reality is it's always been under their control because they decide where to invest their capital."
Throughout the 1980s and 90s during the collapse of the steel industry, U.S. Steel often hinted at the possibility of re-investing in other former plants in the region, including Homestead Steel Works, Duquesne Works and McKeesport Tube Works before ultimately closing those facilities, leaving polluted brownfields in their wake.
In 2008 U.S. Steel promised to invest a billion dollars to replace several coke batteries built in the 1950s, including batteries 1, 2, and 3—the same ones it's now promising to shut down in 2023—but in 2014 they backed away from those plans.
In 2014, the company announced plans to build a new corporate headquarters in the Lower Hill District as part of an initiative to redevelop that region. Two years later they cancelled those plans, too.
In response to questions about this history, U.S. Steel said, "the Mon Valley Works' low-cost operation makes it a vital part of our Best of Both strategy. The facility will continue supply to key customers in the appliance, construction, and service center markets."
Mehalik said this is "not the behavior of an entity that values the community or its workers."
"After 50 years of this, it's time for local leadership to look for a new direction," he said. "Our communities cannot succeed with this approach of misleading and broken promises for the future."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include U.S. Steel clarification on the timeline of the investments and announcement, and the plan to avoid job loss in the batteries' shutdown.
Banner photo: Erica Butler of the Pediatric Alliance administers an asthma screening to Montaziyah Evans at Clairton Elementary School in Clairton, PA. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)
PITTSBURGH—Lead was detected in 80 percent of water systems in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which encompasses Pittsburgh, in 2019, according to a new two-year analysis.
While the federal limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb), experts—including those at the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—have long warned that there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Lead exposure in children damages the brain and nervous system, slows growth and development, and can lower IQ and cause learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems.
The Pittsburgh-based health advocacy nonprofit Women for a Healthy Environment, sent Right to Know Requests (Pennsylvania's equivalent of Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA requests) to the 36 water systems in the county, asking questions about monitoring, contaminants, lead pipe replacements, staffing and funding, and transparency. Twenty-eight facilities responded in full.
The report states that while 80 percent of those water facilities had detected lead in their drinking water, only 36 percent had lead hazard information on their websites.
In addition to lead, the report looked at a number of other contaminants including barium, chlorine, PFOS, PFOA, radium, arsenic, nitrates, trihalomethanes, and haloacetic acids, each of which is linked to industrial activities in the region (like oil and gas extraction, steel manufacturing, and other heavy industries).
It found that since 2016, more than half of the water systems in Allegheny County had had some type of water quality-related violation.
The report "shines a light on the impact of one person's address on the quality of their drinking water, along with how readily able they are to track down information on it," Talor Musil, Health Policy Coordinator for Women for a Healthy Environment, said in a statement.
The report pointed to previous research showing that communities of color and low-income communities in Allegheny County are most heavily impacted by lead exposure: According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health's 2018 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report, among children tested for elevated blood lead levels before the age of 6, nearly four times as many Black and Hispanic children tested positive for lead poisoning compared to White children (4.5 percent vs. 1.2 percent).
Lori Rue, manager of the Braddock Water Authority, which serves an "environmental justice area," defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection as census tracts where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority, said in a statement "they are grateful to Women for a Healthy Environment for pulling this analysis together."
"We are one of the smaller community water systems, yet still face many of the challenges of larger systems," she added. "The report identifies ways that we can improve our system and across the region."
Lead levels in Allegheny County water systems. Credit: Women for a Healthy Environment
On December 22, 2020, the EPA released its long-awaited, revised Lead and Copper Rule, but in January the Biden administration paused implementation after environmental groups sued the EPA over the new rule, claiming it would actually loosen existing regulations and reverse progress aimed at protecting children's health.
The Biden EPA is considering strengthening the rule, and Women for a Healthy Environment is among the groups petitioning the agency to lower the federal limit on lead in drinking water from 15 to 10 ppb. The EPA has set a maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at 0 ppb, but existing regulations must take into account water authorities' limited ability to achieve that goal.
Women for a Healthy Environment's analysis found that about 14 percent of Allegheny County's water systems have lead levels between 10 and 15 ppb. If the proposed revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule move forward, these water systems would be required to replace lead service lines and reduce exposures for consumers.
"There is no safe level of lead in drinking water and this report amplifies the need for health protective action levels," Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis, executive director of Women for a Healthy Environment, told EHN.
"The 14 percent of water systems with levels between 10 and 15 ppb will be required under last year's revised federal Lead and Copper Rule to merely develop inventories and replacement plans for lead service lines," she added. "With implementation of the revised Lead and Copper Rule on pause, we are urging the EPA to strengthen the rule by requiring the replacement of all lead service lines when lead levels exceed 10 ppb."
Credit: Women for a Healthy Environment
The researchers at Women for a Healthy Environment also gathered data on which water systems have replaced lead lines, and whether they've done partial or full lead line replacements.
Partial line replacements typically only address the portion of water lines beneath a public street or sidewalk but do not address the portion of the lines that go into people's homes. Such replacements can shake loose lead in the sections of pipe that remain, which can temporarily result in significantly higher levels of lead in consumer's drinking water, and does little to protect consumers from lead exposure in the long run.
Before 2017, the Municipal Authorities Act of 1945 made it difficult for water systems in Pennsylvania to perform full lead service line replacements because municipalities could only use public funds to replace public sections of service lines. In October 2017 the state legislature passed and signed HB-674, which undoes that requirement and empowers municipal systems across the state to complete full line replacement if the work "will benefit the public health."
Of the 36 systems Women for a Healthy Environment contacted, eight public systems and three private systems reported doing partial line replacements since 2015, while only five reported doing complete line replacements.
Musil noted that many of the water systems in the region—especially smaller systems in lower-income communities—reported being understaffed or not having enough resources to properly manage testing and ensure optimal water quality for consumers on their own.
"As best practices have emerged across the country, and across our region, this points to the need for greater collaboration among water systems," she said.
The report includes a list of grants and loans available to water authorities for complete line replacements.
Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PennVest, is a state office
that provides grants and loans for infrastructure projects. It's the primary source of support for lead service line replacement in the state of Pennsylvania.
Today, PennVest is expected to announce a new Lead Line Replacement project, which will allocate an additional $90 million for this work in 2021.
Credit: Women for a Healthy Environment
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect corrections made by Women for a Healthy Environment to their "Something's in the Water" report. Several charts were amended. The original report stated that these water quality violations had occurred in 2019; it was corrected to reflect that they had actually occurred since 2016.
Banner photo credit: Nenad Stojkovic/flickr
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