Findings suggest that fossil fuel companies are not reporting all of their toxic emissions
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — Airborne pollutants, including cancer-causing chemicals, are showing up downwind of Canada’s largest oil, gas and tar sands processing zone, in a rural area where men suffer elevated rates of cancers linked to chemicals like 1,3-butadiene and benzene.
The findings, compiled by researchers with the University of California-Irvine and the University of Michigan, also suggested that, in some cases, companies are not reporting all of the tons of chemicals they release. The sampling found high levels of 1,3-butadiene that could only have come from one facility, but there were no records of the company reporting those emissions.
“Our study was designed to test what kinds of concentrations could be encountered on the ground during a random visit downwind of various facilities. We’re seeing elevated levels of carcinogens and other gases in the same area where we’re seeing excess cancers known to be caused by these chemicals,” said UC Irvine chemist Isobel Simpson, lead author of the paper in Atmospheric Environment.
“Our main point is that it would be good to proactively lower these emissions of known carcinogens. You can study it and study it, but at some point you just have to say, ‘Let’s reduce it,’ ” she said.
Longtime residents near industrial Alberta have struggled to bring attention to bad odors, health threats and related concerns. The peer-reviewed study is one of few in the region and shows that more investigation of the large and complex facilities is needed.
The researchers obtained health records spanning more than a decade that showed the number of men with leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was greater in communities closest to the pollution plumes than in neighboring counties. The work is a dramatic illustration of a new World Health Organization report that outdoor air pollution is a leading cause of cancer.
While the scientists stopped short of saying that the pollutants they documented were definitely causing the male cancers, they strongly recommended that the industrial emissions be decreased to protect both workers and nearby residents.
“These levels, found over a broad area, are clearly associated with industrial emissions. They also are evidence of major regulatory gaps in monitoring and controlling such emissions and in public health surveillance,” said co-author Stuart Batterman, a University of Michigan professor of environmental health sciences.
The researchers captured emissions in the rural Fort Saskatchewan area downwind of major refineries, chemical manufacturers and tar sands processors owned by BP, Dow, Shell and other companies in the so-called “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta. They took one-minute samples at random times in 2008, 2010 and 2012. All showed similar results. Amounts of some dangerous volatile organic compounds were 6,000 times higher than normal.
The team compared the Alberta plumes to heavily polluted megacities. To their surprise, the scientists saw that levels of some chemicals were higher than in Mexico City during the 1990s or in the still polluted Houston-Galveston area.
Simpson is part of UC Irvine’s Blake-Rowland Group, which has measured air pollution around the world for decades. She and Batterman said the findings were important for other residential areas downwind of refineries and chemical manufacturers, including parts of Los Angeles.
“For any community downwind of heavy industrial activity, I would say it’s certainly prudent to conduct surveys of both air quality – especially carcinogens – and human health,” Simpson said.
“For decades, we’ve known that exposure to outdoor air pollutants can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease,” Batterman said. “The World Health Organization has now also formally recognized that outdoor air pollution is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
Other authors are Josette Marrero, Simone Meinardi, Barbara Barletta and Donald Blake, all of UC Irvine.