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Possible Link Between Ship Channel Air Pollutants, Cancer Risks
School of Public Health epidemiologists are first to report increased risk of childhood cancer
An epidemiological study by researchers from The University of Texas School of Public Health has reported a possible link between proximity to the Houston Ship Channel and increased risk of childhood cancer.
The 18-month study was conducted at the request of the City of Houston in conjunction with ongoing efforts to reduce air quality health risks in Harris County.
The study explored possible connections between the incidence of lymphohematopoietic cancer and proximity to the Houston Ship Channel. Researchers also looked into potential links between these cancers and ambient levels of two hazardous air pollutants: benzene and 1,3-butadiene.
Preliminary findings indicate that living nearer the Ship Channel and in census tracts with higher estimated 1,3-butadiene levels may be associated with childhood leukemia. Children living within two miles of the Ship Channel, according to the study, had a 56 percent higher risk for childhood leukemia than those living more than 10 miles away.
Principal investigator Ann L. Coker, Ph.D., a professor in the school’s Division of Epidemiology and Disease Control, cautioned that the preliminary study found an “association,” but was not detailed enough to prove that the air pollutants actually caused the illnesses.
“The science supports our claim that reducing these hazardous air pollutants must be a high priority for Houston,” said Houston Mayor Bill White at a news conference to announce the final report. “The city has hired environmental experts and legal counsel and has aggressively negotiated with local industry, resulting in a reduction in 1,3-butadiene.”
Initial results indicate that higher benzene levels were not associated with leukemia or lymphoma in children. Among adults, neither proximity to the Ship Channel, nor estimated ambient levels of benzene or 1,3-butadiene, were consistently associated with leukemia or lymphoma.
Among other sources, benzene and 1,3-butadiene are produced by petrochemical and synthetic rubber and plastics manufacturers. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, benzene is classified as a known human carcinogen and 1,3-butadiene is classified as a probable human carcinogen.
“Observing a specific health effect of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) in light of recently documented elevated levels of benzene and 1,3-butadiene in Houston strongly suggests a need to explore this issue further,” Coker said.
Investigators from the UT School of Public Health included Coker; Elaine Symanski, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences; and doctoral students Kristina M. Walker and Philip J. Lupo.
“Research in the area of environmental health is an important part of our mission at the UT School of Public Health,” said Guy S. Parcel, Ph.D., dean of the School of Public Health. “We are committed to working with local and state government to provide information that may be helpful in establishing public health policy.”
Funding for the study came from Houston’s health department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By Rob Cahill, Institutional Advancement
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