In Allentown, Pennsylvania, estimated overall cancer risks are among the highest in the nation, but the reasons are unclear. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), people who live near facilities that release the class IB carcinogen Ethylene Oxide (EtO) in the air are suspected to be at higher risk, but barriers such as cost and labor have prevented state environmental protection agencies from conducting more routine air monitoring.
Lehigh researchers Hyunok Choi, associate professor in the department of Community and Population Health, and Breena Holland, associate professor of political science and the Environmental Initiative, are partnering with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to measure concentrations of EtO and other volatile organic compounds in the air. The project aims to discover the amount of toxic pollutants in the air and collaborate with an east Allentown community to understand and reduce exposure to these toxics.
East side Allentown is home to nearly 16,800 residents, with 40% to 60% identifying as Hispanic, Latino or African American. According to the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool, the study area is subject to a multitude of environmental justice impacts.
The researchers are conducting air monitoring for one year in the area, as well as four one-month tests near a medical sterilization facility and proximate areas of community interest.
Choi and Holland will work closely with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley to engage community members and develop strategies to effectively reduce their exposure to environmental harms.
“By bringing these community members into the project and working with them to understand the problem and develop solutions, we will raise awareness, promote citizen-driven research, and empower the community members as key stakeholders,” the researchers say.
When the project concludes, the researchers hope to improve health outcomes, influence policy and lay the groundwork for similar work to be performed in the future.
"Air toxics do not obey the rules of private property,” Holland says. “Public officials will want to make sure their constituents are safe."
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