The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has just completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania.  Here is a sample from Day 1 of their 8-day series.

Numerous studies show that southwestern Pennsylvania has poor air quality and a yearlong Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation has found that those pollution problems remain far from solved in communities such as Shippingport and Monaca, Bellevue and Sewickley, Masontown and Clearfield, Cranberry and Bridgeville, Pittsburgh and hundreds of others.

At the same time, the Post-Gazette’s review and analysis of state Department of Health mortality statistics shows that 14,636 more people died from heart disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer in the region from 2000 through 2008 than national mortality rates for those diseases would predict.

Those diseases have been linked to air pollution exposure.

After adjusting for slightly higher smoking rates in Pennsylvania, the total number of excess deaths from those three diseases is 12,833. That’s still a more than 10 percent higher mortality rate overall than would be expected in the population of approximately 3 million people in 14 counties, based on national risk rates for those three diseases.

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The Post-Gazette mapped the mortality rates for heart and lung disease and lung cancer for each of 746 municipalities in the 14-county region and found higher rates around many of the region’s 16 coal-fired power plants and 150 other companies considered by the EPA as major stationary sources of pollution emissions. High mortality rates also turned up irregularly in the “plume shadows” of the utilities and industrial sources, that is the downwind area where their emissions can be transported.

The mortality mapping, while not establishing any direct cause-and-effect link to any single or specific pollution source, shows associations that are consistent with accepted scientific health risk models and formulas used by the EPA and other pollution research scientists. It indicates that pollution may play as big a role in the region’s high mortality rates for those three diseases as Pall Malls, pilsners and pierogies.

“The maps do actually form some evidence that reinforces the literature that coal burning does have those effects,” said Conrad Dan Volz, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities and an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health.

He noted that the mortality rates from 2000 through 2008 are “lagging indicators” that could reflect past pollution exposure for the region’s population. But they might also show the health impacts of continuing exposure and that regulations aren’t as effective as they could be.

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On Sunday morning U.S. Steel finally shut down its Donora mills. By that afternoon, when a rainstorm blew into the valley ending the inversion and clearing the pollution, 22 people had died in Donora and the town of Webster, just across the Mon. Almost half of Donora’s 13,000 residents were sickened, and hundreds were evacuated or hospitalized.

“Dr. Clarence Mills, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati, said at the time that if the inversion had lasted another day, hundreds more would have died and life as we know it would not exist in Donora,” Dr. Stacey said.

In the months that followed, an additional 50 people died in Donora over the number that would normally be expected. And the town’s mortality rate remained significantly higher than that of neighboring towns in the Mon Valley for a decade.

U.S. Steel refused to accept blame at the time and still has not turned over to researchers its archival data related to the fatal smog.

Lawsuits totaling $4.5 million in claims were filed by more than 100 Donora residents against U. S. Steel. All were settled in 1951 for $256,000, according to a new book, “The Polluters,” written by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter.

“No one got rich,” said Dr. Stacey. “After the lawyers were paid, most people had enough to buy a television set.”

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Although FirstEnergy sent workers through the affected communities to power-wash the ashy black residue from the exterior of homes, outdoor deck and lawn furniture and vehicles, and cleaned indoor carpeting — and did so at Gracie’s grandparents’ home in Raccoon Township — it did not remove the sand pile where she continued to play daily, and, as was her wont, put things in her mouth.

Then, the lawsuit states, on Aug. 7, 16 days after what had become known in the community as the “black rain event,” FirstEnergy notified local officials and made public announcements recommending that farmers not allow livestock to graze in fields carpeted with the soot and that residents not use or eat from their home gardens for a year. In the weeks that followed, while company workers mowed the affected hay and yards, and harvested and paid for backyard garden produce, Gracie’s long brown hair was falling out in big clumps.

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