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Heavy Air Pollution in Canada Linked to Cancer Spikes in Rural Region

First Posted: Oct 23, 2013 08:46 AM EDT

It turns out that heavy air pollution in Canada may be associated with cancer spikes. Scientists have discovered that levels of contaminants higher than in some of the world's most polluted cities have been found 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 such chemicals.

In order to examine how this processing zone might be impacting the community downwind from it, the researchers captured emissions in the rural Fort Saskatchewan area. They took one-minute samples at random times in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Despite the random times, though, all of the samples showed similar results; amounts of some dangerous volatile organic compounds were 6,000 times higher than normal.

The contaminants that the researchers found included the carcinogens 1,3-butadiene and benzene and other airborne pollutants. Yet in order to see how these pollutants might be impacting the community, the researchers had to investigate a bit further. They gathered 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.

"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 Isobel Simpson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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.'"

That's not all the researchers discovered, either. It turns out that the Alberta plumes were comparable to those found in heavily polluted megacities. In fact, the levels of some chemicals were higher than in Mexico City during the 1990s or in the still polluted Houston-Galveston area.

"For decades, we've known that exposure to outdoor air pollutants can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease," said Stuart Batterman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The World Health Organization has now also formally recognized that outdoor air pollution is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths."

The findings are published in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

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