Study links oil refineries to cancer risk

Source: By Carlos Anchondo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 7, 2020

Texans living in close proximity to oil refineries have an elevated risk of developing cancer, according to a new study that examined regions affecting more than 6.3 million people.

The research, published in the December issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, said people living within 10 miles of an oil refinery had the highest risk of a cancer diagnosis compared to those living between 20-30 miles from a refinery.

Researchers said the increased risk for cancer encompasses multiple types of the disease, including bladder, lung, prostate and breast, and noted those living within 10 miles of a refinery also had an increased risk of “metastatic disease” than those farther away.

“Given the increased rate in advanced malignancies in all cancer sites that we observed in relation to refinery proximity,” the study authors stressed the importance for an “increasingly at-risk population” to get regular cancer screenings and other health care checkups.

The analysis — from researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health — used data from the Texas Cancer Registry and the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the nearly 830,000 cancer patients living in Texas between 2001 and 2014, roughly 34% of those lived within a 30-mile radius of a refinery, the study said.

Hemalkumar Mehta, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins and one of the study co-authors, said while this particular study didn’t look at what about the oil refineries increases people’s risk of getting cancer, previous research has demonstrated that pollutants like benzene and toluene — and others linked to oil refinery processes — have been shown to be carcinogenic.

Mehta also addressed some of the study’s limitations, such as its use of county-level data.

“We looked at patients living within 10, 20 and 30 miles at the county level and then, among those, how many got cancer,” Mehta said last week. “The ideal study design would be at the patient level, where we have individual data at the patient level and we follow them over time and see who develops cancer.”

There are plans to do this kind of analysis in future research on the topic, he said.

Authors acknowledged other study limitations, including that “further sensitivity analyses among older patients and according to sex had similar findings regarding risk of cancer diagnosis and proximity to an oil refinery.”

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, cited that limitation, among others listed in the study, and called the research “inconclusive.”

“The study’s authors themselves acknowledge multiple limitations and admit their findings lack important and relevant data,” Staples said in an emailed statement.

“What is not inconclusive, however, is that stringent regulations are in place to minimize industrial emissions and the industry’s investments in innovation and technology are protecting and improving air quality in Texas,” he added.