People living in Pittsburgh and its encompassing county have twice the risk of developing cancer within their lifetimes than those who live in other areas of Pennsylvania, due to the unique mixture of hazardous pollutants in the air they breathe, according to a study released Thursday.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health’s study focused on emission levels of a broad class of air pollutants know as hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) which comprise approximately 200 chemicals or materials suspected by the EPA to cause cancer or other serious health effects. The top cancer-driving HAPs in Allegheny county — which includes Pittsburgh, Clairton, and Dunuesne — are emissions from diesel fuel, formaldehyde, coke oven emissions, carbon tetrachloride, and benzene.
The lifetime risk in Allegheny is actually comparable to many other urban populations in the U.S., the study noted, but said that the Pittsburgh area is unique because of the amount of nearby natural gas development, electric power-generating facilities, and coke processing plants, making for a distinctive and harmful mix of pollutants.
“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,” the report’s lead author Drew Michanowicz told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “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 study listed diesel engine emissions as the highest priority air toxin in the region, noting it is “an important driver of cancer risk in urban settings.” If diesel were removed from consideration, projected cancer rates would fall tenfold, the study said.
The report in full can be read here.