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Allegheny County dwellers have greater risk of cancer, Pitt study finds

| Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, 4:01 a.m.

A report prepared for the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health finds cancer risk factors for Allegheny County residents are more than twice as high as for residents of surrounding rural areas.

Using the latest National Air Toxics Assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency dating back to 2005, Pitt researchers found air pollution made the risk 20 times greater for those in West Elizabeth and Clairton.

“The residents of Clairton and the Mon Valley always have known these things have been happening,” said Clairton's Lee Lasich, who joined Clean Water Action nine years ago.

“They're more terrified of losing their jobs and they have to support their families,” said Lasich, who was elected to city council last month but said she is speaking as a private citizen.

“Pollution levels have greatly improved since then, so we would expect the risk factors to be improved, but we still have a ways to go,” said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the county health department. “The absolute risk levels are probably outdated and are probably in the area of 25 to 30 percent lower.”

The “Pittsburgh Regional Environmental Threats Analysis” put together by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the Pitt graduate school is the third in a series.

It focuses on hazardous air pollutants, or air toxics, a category of approximately 200 unique pollutants specifically identified by the Environmental Protection agency as known or suspected causes of cancer or other serious health effects, according the report.

Pitt researchers said they have a tendency to reach significant concentrations in the air we breathe.

Clean Water Action and other nonprofits issued recommendations for the County and other Southwestern Pennsylvania authorities.

They said the county ranks 63rd among 3,225 in the country in terms of cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants, placing it in the top 2 percent.

They urged the county to “rigorously apply” its updated air toxics guidelines to all permits for facilities connected to hydraulic fracturing.

Clean Water Action and others want to include strong control measures for coke ovens in the county health department's sulfur dioxide State Implementation Plan.

They pointed to changes in Pittsburgh law that are intended to encourage reduction of diesel emissions from vehicles used at construction projects.

“Diesel vehicle pollution stands out as an obvious target of high priority,” said Rachel Filippini, executive director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution. “We have many tools to reduce diesel pollution, but some are unfortunately not being enforced.”

“Over the past five years we've provided over $5 million in funding to retrofit dirty diesel vehicles to reduce emissions,” Thompson said. “We currently are partnering with the Heinz Endowments and we have a $1.8 million fund available for small businesses to retrofit their construction vehicles.”

Others signing on to the statement by Clean Water Action are Clean Air Council, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future or PennFuture, Sustainable Pittsburgh and Women for a Healthy Environment,

They called for county leaders and municipal officials in the largest cities and areas with the highest cancer risk to attend a Sustainable Development Academy briefing scheduled for the middle of next year, to learn “helpful recommendations for reducing these threats to public health.”

“There needs to be rules and regulations, and people and government agencies do need to take an important part in making sure the guidelines are followed,” Lasich said.

“A typical response from policymakers is to ignore the reports or, even worse, discredit them,” Clean Water Action Western Pennsylvania director Tom Hoffman said. “We desperately need leaders who will not only acknowledge the problems, but act on them.”

U.S. Steel, operator of the Mon Valley Works Clairton coke plant, declined to make a direct comment.

U.S. Steel media relations manager Courtney Boone stressed that “our recently commissioned C battery at Clairton was a $500 million investment into the company's environmental performance which will in turn result in improved regional air quality.”

A Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman cited the EPA and federal Energy Information Administration in saying that “clean-burning natural gas ... is helping to sharply improve air quality both regionally and nationally.”

The spokesman said an advantage of natural gas is the delivery of historic carbon dioxide emission reductions, which he said are at 20-year low.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or

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