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Study of Tonawanda Coke's possible public health impact is getting underway

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If you live in Grand Island, the City of Tonawanda or Town of Tonawanda, there's a chance you'll get a piece of mail from the University at Buffalo, asking you to participate in a survey. A long-awaited research project to measure how much Tonawanda Coke may have impacted public health through its emissions is geting underway.

Back in 2013, Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of environmental violations. One year later, a study of potential public health impact was ordered. Tonawanda Coke is paying for the project, estimated at $11.4 million. After a period of carefully preparing research protocols and questionnaires, the University at Buffalo is launching the study this week with the first set of mailings to potential participants.


"What our strategy will be is to essentially ask for residential histories," said Matthew Bonner, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University at Buffalo, which is leading the study. "Then we'll use outside data that have been collected over the years to measure exposures and use geographic information systems to link what the concentrations are estimated to be at their homes."

Part of a survey residents will be asked to complete includes confidential questions about lifestyle habits such as whether they smoke cigarettes, whether the household uses a wood-burning fireplace or stove and about their own workplace environments. Bonner says researchers want to learn more about what the emissions from Tonawanda Coke may - or may not - have done to impact local health.

"Could these be related to environmental exposures? This study really sets the stage to give an evidence base for what we should be doing next," Bonner said. 

Among the chemicals discharged by Tonawanda Coke through its oven emissions are formaldehyde and benzene. Coke oven emissions have been linked to illnesses including lung and bladder cancers. But the  most comprehensive studies on coke oven emissions and health, Bonner told WBFO, date back to the 1940s and cover those working directly in that environment. Questions remain about the health effects they may have on people living in nearby communities.

"These are studies that have been done in working-age men," he said. "We don't really have a good sense of what happens to other individuals."

Participants will be paid ten dollars to fill out a survey. While they will be asked to put their names on the surveys, the information will be kept confidential. The names are needed, though, to help researchers measure any emerging trends. Researchers will follow health trends for ten years.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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