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Toxins all around us

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Corporations across the State of Oklahoma have a historic problem with pollution.

Locations such as the infamous Tar Creek Superfund Site display the apathy for public and environmental safety that these corporations demonstrate into the present day.

Every year, hundreds of different corporations release chemicals into the air, landfills, as well as ponds and streams across the state. Due to this pollution, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1987. 

This act created the Toxic Release Inventory, which acts as a repository of information about releases across the United States, from locations of emissions to the corporation responsible for the pollution. This inventory of data is maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and is accessible online.

Emissions such as those previously listed have long been known to cause diseases such as cancer, but lead can have more damaging effects, especially on children as lead exposure can slow growth and development according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The TRI report also revealed that over half of all carcinogenic releases occurred within only seven counties: Carter, Creek, Kay, Muskogee, Oklahoma, Rogers and Tulsa counties.

This finding, coupled with data from the Oklahoma Department of Health’s online health statistics database, OK2SHARE, revealed that multiple of those seven counties have respiratory cancer rates far above the state average.

Data Analysis and Findings:

The TRI revealed 6,804 total emission releases between 2017 and 2021. After sorting these releases by carcinogen detection, the data was then sorted by carcinogen type, revealing the carcinogens most often released within the state.

Of the over 700 chemicals that are monitored for release by the TRI, the vast majority of releases in Oklahoma were heavy metals including lead, chromium, nickel and zinc, each of which are known to cause respiratory cancer. Other major respiratory carcinogens were also detected such polycyclic aromatic compounds, which are also major environmental contaminants according to the National Institutes of Health, as well as the EPA and CDC. 

After identifying the main carcinogens, the data was subsequently sorted and analyzed by county to reveal the previously listed hot spot counties of Carter, Creek, Kay, Muskogee, Oklahoma, Rogers and Tulsa counties. 

Corporations within these counties were responsible for over half (57%) of all carcinogenic releases within this period.

After identifying the major carcinogens at play, as well as where these releases occurred, respiratory cancer rate statistics were retrieved from OK2SHARE for each of the affected counties, for each year of the past five years. Each yearly cancer rate was then standardized per 100,000 residents and compared to state and national incidence rates provided by the CDC and NIH, which also standardize rates per 100,000 residents.

This data revealed that over this five-year period, five of the seven counties experienced multiple years with respiratory cancer rates far above the state incident rate of 65.7 per 100,000 residents.

This finding was best exemplified by Creek County, which had an average respiratory cancer incidence rate of 110.9 per 100,000 residents and experiences over 50 toxic releases per year.

What does this mean for Oklahomans?

For any Oklahoman these numbers should be concerning, as a recent Stacker study found that just over 20% of Oklahomans live near a TRI facility.  This coupled with large numbers of releases of carcinogens certainly has helped increase cancer incidence rates in these counties, however determining the causes cancer is not that simple.

The data shows that these releases are certainly dangerous, and the correlation shows between both data sets, the causation between these two issues needs to be analyzed further. However this data does show that these toxic releases are a compounding factor.

Note: the State Department of Health and State Department of Environmental Quality had not responded to questions at the time of publishing.