New registry to track cancer among firefighters

Federal health officials have launched a registry they hope will provide insights into heightened cancer risks among firefighters.

The National Firefighter Registry for Cancer, led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is recruiting current and past firefighters to sign up and share information. The voluntary registry will capture details on work history and match it with cancer cases, allowing researchers to study the relationships over time.

Past research has found higher rates of cancer — particularly respiratory, digestive and urinary cancers — among firefighters, who are regularly exposed to smoke, firefighting chemicals, asbestos and other hazards.

While cancer is a reportable illness in every state, most do not collect related occupational information. Information is also lacking on firefighters who are women, people of color or volunteers. Data from the registry could be used to pinpoint risks and develop new safety measures for workers.

The registry is mandated under the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, passed by Congress in 2018.

EPA restricts hazardous paint stripper chemical

Workers and consumers who undertake renovations would be better protected from hazardous chemical exposure under a new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

On April 20, the EPA announced a rule that would ban methylene chloride for all consumer use and most commercial and industrial uses. The chemical is often used in paint strippers, as well as in brush cleaners, aerosol degreasers, adhesives and sealants.

An EPA risk evaluation found methylene chloride “presents unreasonable risk to human health.” Short-term exposure to the chemical is linked with neurotoxicity and long-term exposure is associated with liver effects and cancer. Since 1980, at least 85 people have died from acute exposures to methylene chloride, most of whom were contract workers doing home renovation projects, according to the EPA. Some of the workers died even though they were trained and using personal protective equipment. 

The new rule would continue to allow some uses of the chemical by the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, with strict controls.

Disparities in air pollution exposure increasing

Many Americans are regularly exposed to unhealthy air, but that burden is not shared equally, according to a recent report from the American Lung Association.

Although people of color make up 41% of the overall U.S. population, they account for more than half of the 120 million people who live in a county with poor grades for air quality, finds the association’s April 19 “State of the Air” report. People of color are 64% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for ozone or particle pollution, an increase from last year’s assessment.

Low-income people also face more exposure to unhealthy air. More than 14.6 million people with incomes that meet the federal definition of poverty live in counties that received an “F” for either ozone or particle pollution, the report said. 

Bakersfield, California, was ranked as having the worst air for both short-term and year-round particle pollution. Kern County, in which Bakersfield is located, is responsible for more than 70% of California’s oil production and 78% of the state’s natural gas production. Reflecting the report’s findings on disparities, Bakersfield’s population is 52% Hispanic, 7% Black and 7% Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 16% of its residents live in poverty, compared to the national rate of 11.6%.

Breast cancer survival influenced by neighborhood

Women with breast cancer who live in poor neighborhoods do not survive as long as their peers in the wealthiest areas, new research shows.

Published April 21 in JAMA Network Open, the study looked at data on more than 5,000 women with breast cancer in South Florida. While all women from disadvantaged neighborhoods were at higher risk for shorter survival after a breast cancer diagnosis, Black women from those areas were at highest risk. 

Patients living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods were more likely to have more advanced cancer and less likely to complete all recommended treatments compared with those in the most advantaged neighborhoods. Those in the poorer neighborhoods were also more likely to have triple-negative breast cancer, which spreads faster, has fewer treatment options and is more common in women who are Black, young or have a certain genetic mutation.

Factors such as lack of access to health care, referrals, transportation and social support may play a role in the disparities between neighborhoods. Social and environmental stressors could also be contributors, the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine researchers suggested.

Natural gas facilities agree to address leaks

More than 100 natural gas processing and compressors stations will be updated to reduce hazardous air pollution under new court settlements reached with the U.S. government.

Three natural gas companies will pay a combined $9.25 million in penalties and undertake work at 25 gas processing plants and 91 compressor stations according to the agreements, which were announced April 20 by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The settlements were reached following complaints that the companies — MPLX LP, the Williams Companies Inc. and WES DJ Gathering LLC — violated leak detection and repair laws at their facilities. Emissions from the plants include volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and greenhouse gases, according to the complaints.

The companies agreed to conduct audits, review compliance and repair leaking equipment faster and install equipment that leaks less. They also committed to improving staff training on leak detection and repair.

The EPA estimates that the changes will decrease ozone-producing air pollution by about 950 tons per year and greenhouse gases by more than 50,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide equivalent, including methane. Twelve states will be impacted by the air-quality improvements, including communities disproportionately affected by pollution.

The Watch is written by Michele Late, who has more than two decades of experience as a public-health journalist.