Air toxins, asthma and lung cancer in East County: What’s the connection?

Jeff Belle 06-13By Jeff Belle

Air quality, optimal health and community growth are major concerns for residents of Contra Costa County. Equally important is the fact that business and industry are vital to economic development and sustainability. However, from time to time, communities are adversely affected by industrialized companies. For example, in East County, asthma prevalence has risen above the state average. In fact, in the State of California, this upward trend of asthma prevalence has risen steadily since 2004. About 1 in 8 Californians report they have been diagnosed with asthma.

Air pollution has been linked to an increase in the exacerbation of asthmatics conditions which vary often require additional medical care including emergency room visits and hospitalizations. In addition, asthma complications incur medical and economic cost. Severe asthma conditions can be life-threatening.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), long term exposure to particular matter in the air increased the risk of lung cancer even at levels lower than the government agency recommended limit values. Consequently, residents living near polluting industrial facilities have the greatest risk exposure; thereby resulting in a localized pattern of disease such as lung cancer. But the question remains: What’s the connection between air toxins from industrialized facilities in East County and asthma and lung cancer among residents of East County?

In order to answer the preceding question, a group of interns from Los Medanos Community Healthcare District and I undertook a descriptive epidemiology and methodological process. Our hopes were to identify the link between air pollutants from industrial facilities located near Pittsburg and Antioch, California and the increase in asthma exacerbations and lung cancer mortality among residents in East County. An extensive online search of journals, government reports, community health publications, public health data, empirical evidence from peer-reviewed studies and an onsite random sample survey and interviews were all researched, analyzed and evaluated to meet our litmus test.

A large amount of evidence clearly showed the link between an increased in the number of asthma hospitalization and medical emergency visits in Contra Costa County and the quantity and types of air pollutants emitted from industrial facilities located in or near Antioch or Pittsburg. In addition to the four known air toxins which trigger asthma exacerbations, we identified four known carcinogenic air toxins which have been known to cause lung cancer. In fact, five industrial chemical facilities located near Pittsburg, California have a long history (since 2002) of releasing large quantities of these toxins.

During our random sampling and on-site interviews, we found that 82 percent of respondents reported that they have someone in their household who has a breathing problem. Moreover, 57 percent believe that industrial facilities are the greatest contributor to air pollution. An overwhelming 86 percent were very concerned about the health consequences of poor air quality.

In regards to health disparity that exist among people of ethnic diversity and lower socioeconomic communities, it’s a matter of geographical locations. And, unfortunately, incidence, prevalence and mortality are all affected by geographic. Consequently, residents who reside in San Pablo, Pittsburg, Antioch and Oakley have a greater exposure rate and therefore are more susceptible to asthma exacerbations and incidence of lung cancer than any other cities in Contra Costa County. Of course, physical, pre-existing health, socio-economic and environmental determinants are important factors as well.

As the interns coined the theme of our research, “The Battle to Breathe”; I’m perplexed with the thought of residents in East County having to battle to breathe, meanwhile industrialized facilities battle for business. All in all, I hear the sound of a bitter sweet symphony.

Partial Sources:

Asthma and Air Pollution: Natural Resources Defense Council Report

California Air Resources Board, July 2013

California Department of Health Services, Environment Health Investigation, March 2004.

California Cancer Registry, October 2009.

Center for Disease Control (CDC), 2012

Occupational Hazard Report January 2000.

Scorecard Report on Environmental Releases

Belle is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership Development. He researches, writes and lectures on health policy and leadership development issues. He is a resident of Antioch.

8 Comments to “Air toxins, asthma and lung cancer in East County: What’s the connection?”

  1. […] Air toxins, asthma and lung cancer in East County: What's the connection?Antioch HeraldAir quality, optimal health and community growth are major concerns for residents of Contra Costa County. Equally important is the fact that business and industry are vital to economic development and sustainability. However, from time to time …and more » […]

  2. Arne Simonsen says:

    To add validity to this study, it should have also included how long each interviewee had lived in Pittsburg & Antioch. Otherwise, it the results could be misleading if it included newer residents who moved here from other locations.

    • Jeff Belle says:

      Arne, this is just an analytical epidemiological approach which provides for a snapshot. In order to ascertain additional data, a longitudinal study or cross-sectional analysis would need to be conducted. Given time and money restraints, neither are possible at this time. We identified links through simple methods: empirical peer-reviewed evidence and random sampling interviews and surveys.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Martha Parsons says:

    I was born and raised in Antioch and know of many with respiratory problems including asthma. To a person, they have either smoked themselves or grew up in a household where they breathed second-hand smoke for many years, yet, no where on your article was smoking mentioned. Even a “snapshot” should include all factors before it can draw any conclusions. Supposing everything else in your article to be true, placing all the blame on industry makes your conclusion invalid.

  4. Jeff Belle says:

    Mary, it’s rather obvious that environmental and life style facts as smoking contributes to respiratory complications, more commonly in COPD however, and not asthma. COPD is a combination of chronic bronchititis, emphysema, and bronchectasis. Epidemiological studies do not provide all the answers. Our study show a link between known air toxins and an exacerbation of asthma conditions and lung cancer mortality.
    In order to conduct an extensive study, resources including time and money are required. Evidence-based data, reports, Radom sampling and surveys, CDHS, CDC and peer-reviewed scientific journals all of which gave us significant amount of evidence to substantiate our hypothesis.
    Thanks for your comment.

  5. Jeff Belle says:

    As with all scientific studies, additional research and questions need to be investigated. Epidemiological studies simply look at the occurrence of disease or health outcomes in populations- Person, Place, Time! There are always better ways to do anything. But, there is only one way to do it right. And, we conducted this research using three simple, but complex epidemiological methods: evidenced-based data, random sampling surveys and interviews and peer-reviewed empirical studies.
    Ethical guidelines are paramount, therefore we took special care to minimize risks and protect the welfare of subjects, submit study for review to various boards, and community inclusion.
    Epidemiology is an observational science that involves describing the occurrences of disease and researching the etiology( cause) of disease. Counts, incidence and prevalence are commonly used.
    Reliability and validity are interrelated terms. Our study is reliable because it could be repeated. Validity means true measurement.or Gold Standard. However, one can have a reliable test that isn’t valid, but not the converse.

  6. more info says:

    more info

    Air toxins, asthma and lung cancer in East County: What’s the connection? | Antioch Herald

  7. Pat says:

    “Radon levels” are high in the rocky hill areas; the second largest cause of lung cancer!

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