Federal air monitoring investment could lower southwest Pennsylvania cancer rates

PITTSBURGH—Community groups in southwestern Pennsylvania will soon have the power of more data in their fight against cancer-causing pollution.

Six groups have been awarded nearly $2 million in federal funding for new air monitoring projects that could help lower cancer risk in the region.

The grants, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are part of $53.4 million given to community air monitoring projects across the country. It’s the largest ever EPA investment in community air monitoring.

Eleven projects in Pennsylvania will receive nearly $4.3 million, nearly half of which will go to southwestern Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh and is home to 1.2 million people, is in the top 1% of U.S. counties for cancer risk from industrial air pollution. The air pollutants driving this include coke oven emissions from the steel industry, diesel particulate matter, formaldehyde, and benzene, among others.

In seven southwestern Pennsylvania counties, rates for six types of cancer with strong links to chemical exposures are elevated, in some cases by more than 50% compared with national rates. These include leukemia and bladder, breast, thyroid and kidney cancer.

Health advocates hope these projects will change that.

“If these studies find elevated levels of cancer-causing pollutants in certain areas, the next question is what can researchers, community members and policymakers do to intervene,” Molly Jacobs, a senior advisor at the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

Better equipment, better data, better health

US Steel clairton coke works

Funding hasn’t been distributed yet, but the planned projects in southwestern Pennsylvania include:

The projects will generally be overseen by one or two local community groups, but there’s also overarching collaboration. Data from all of the projects will be managed by the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab, known as the CREATE Lab, at Carnegie Mellon University, where researchers will help with analysis and look for trends. Eventually, all the data will be accessible through a public database.

“Publicly accessible data is a tool that people can use to make decisions about what they want to do that day, especially in highly industrialized areas where air quality can change hour to hour and day to day,” Ana Hoffman, director of air quality engagement at the CREATE Lab, told EHN. “Up to this point, access to those tools has been limited, especially for Black and Brown communities.”

The projects will all use EPA-certified air monitoring methods, tools and labs.

“A lot of communities have done air monitoring with lower cost monitors, but the results are always disregarded and there’s this idea that regulators need to come in and do it again themselves,” Nathan Deron, an environmental data scientist at the Environmental Health Project, which is overseeing the project in Washington County, told EHN. “This is a good movement toward regulators accepting the validity of community air monitoring results.”

These monitors are more expensive than the low-cost, commercially available ones, and are capable of detecting and quantifying more harmful chemicals, including air pollutants linked to cancer like benzene, formaldehyde, carbon tetrachloride, arsenic and chromium.

“Our existing air monitoring network is better suited for things like particulate matter, ozone and sulfur dioxide, but less good at detecting specific VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds] and HAPS [Hazardous Air Pollutants], which are much stronger drivers of cancer risk,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, told EHN.

Each project includes a mix of continuous air monitoring and additional sampling periodically or during suspected pollution events. Most projects will run for three years with air sampling at consistent intervals.

“This will let us see what acute, short-term high level exposures might look like, in addition to long term exposure trends, which we hope will provide additional insights about how this translates into cancer risk,” Mehalik said.

A growing body of research suggests that exposure to low-dose mixtures of cancer-causing chemicals can multiply cancer risk based on the ways these chemicals interact in our bodies.

“Oftentimes we measure these types of pollutants on an individual basis,” she said. “It will be important for communities and researchers to think about the cumulative impact of these air pollutants.”

Turning data into action

“The EPA hasn’t given us a clear pathway for how this data will be taken into consideration,” Shannon Smith, executive director at FracTracker, which is overseeing the project that spans western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, told EHN. “We hope the data will be used by regulators to reduce harmful exposures when we find them, but the program isn’t set up in a way that directly links the two things.”

This means the groups overseeing the projects will need to communicate findings regularly with the appropriate regulators, whether they’re at the Allegheny County Health Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or the EPA’s regional offices.

“Funding for these projects will finally give communities, some who for years have been overburdened by polluted air and other environmental insults, the data and information needed to better understand their local air quality and have a voice for real change,” EPA Mid-Atlantic regional administrator Adam Ortiz, said in a statement.

Smith said the grants are an opportunity to build more trust and stronger relationships between communities and regulators. “The hope is that they’ll be more receptive to this information now that the EPA is involved,” she said.

Action from regulators will be necessary to translate these projects into lower cancer risk for the region. If the projects show high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air in certain communities, and regulators use that data to further restrict emissions of those chemicals, cancer risk will measurably decrease for those communities.

Cancer risk vs. cancer rates


Tying the data to cancer rates as opposed to risk (ie. the number of people who actually get cancer, as opposed to the number of people expected to eventually get cancer) presents a unique challenge.

“Cancer can take 20-30 years to develop,” said James Fabisiak, director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh’s school of public health. “If we can say these levels of pollution we’re measuring have been around for that long in these communities, then maybe the current rate of cancer in that area is informative. But if it’s relatively new, like in the fracking studies or around the Shell petrochemical plant, any increase in cancer rates will probably take a fair amount of time to show up.”

One new tool that might help with that, Fabisiak said, is looking at biomarkers in blood or urine samples.

“Certain signs of DNA damage and modification that may have a relationship to cancer are detectable long before a tumor is detectable,” he said.

There are important ethical considerations to make when doing this kind of research — what can a person do if they find out that they’re more likely to eventually develop cancer as a result of these exposures, and how will that knowledge impact their well-being?

“If we find lots of cancer-causing pollution, we don’t need more health studies as a next step,” Jacobs said. “We need interventions aimed at lowering those levels of pollution to start protecting people right now.”