Male residents of the “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta exhibit increased rates of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma due to air pollution, says a new study by researchers from the Universities of California – Irvine and Michigan.  The “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region and is home to more than 40 chemical, petrochemical, oil, and gas companies.

Products processed in the Heartland region include benzene, propane, propene, butane, synthetic crude oil, ethane, styrene, hexane, heavy aromatics, and condensate. When fossil fuels are produced, distributed, and consumed, the processes emit harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Researchers measured VOCs present in emissions from industry facilities and found that some industrial plumes had VOC levels similar to or even higher than some of the world’s largest cities and industrial regions. Amounts of some dangerous chemicals were found to be thousands of times higher than normal levels.

VOCs negatively affect air quality and climate as well as human health. Biological evidence supports the link between certain pollutants and certain cancers; for example, exposure to known carcinogens benzene and 1,3-butadiene have a causal link to leukemia incidence and mortality. Previous studies have found increased rates of leukemia, melanoma, and genotoxic risk in petroleum workers and residents living downwind of petrochemical facilities. Longtime residents of the Industrial Heartland have struggled to draw attention to health-related concerns, UCIrvine News reports.

Based on 13 years of records, the incidence of male hematopoietic cancers (leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) is higher in communities closest to the Industrial Heartland then in neighboring communities. Though researchers say their study cannot absolutely confirm a causal association between blood cancers and industrial emissions, they say that the findings should incentivize action to reduce emissions of known carcinogens.

“Our main point is that it would be good to proactively lower these emissions of known carcinogens,” lead author Isobel Simpson said. “You can study it and study it, but at some point you just have to say, ‘Let’s reduce it.’”

“These levels, found over a broad area, are clearly associated with industrial emissions,” co-author Stuart Batterman added. “They are also evidence of major regulatory gaps in monitoring and controlling such emissions and in public health surveillance.”

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) added cancer to the list of health risks posed by breathing in polluted air. Air pollution is now considered a carcinogen, according to the report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of WHO. Researchers noted that exposure to ambient air pollution, which “comprises a myriad of individual chemical constituents,” caused an estimated 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010, largely due to cardiovascular disease, as well as 223,000 deaths from lung cancer.

Air quality in the Alberta oil sands region is currently monitored by the independent Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA), according to the Alberta Government website. The monitoring association is “funded by the oil and gas industry to monitor air pollution from their operations,” Scientific American reports.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.