Study Shows Proximity to Oil Refineries Increases Likelihood of Cancer

oil refineries cancer

The oil and gas industry is one of the most integral components of the Texas economy. In 2019, Texas produced 1.85 billion barrels of oil. Compared to North Dakota which comes in a distant second place with 512.3 million barrels, Texas is easily the largest producer of oil in the nation. Texas is also the largest chemical-producing state, generating $172 billion in revenue in 2019 alone, and is a global leader in manufacturing petrochemicals. But these industries come consequences: abundant health risks for its residents. A new study done by Texas researchers has shown that for people living near Texas oil refineries and petrochemical plants, the risk of cancer is significantly higher.

The study, done over the span of several years, was conducted by a group of scientists, physicians, and students at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The researchers compared data from the Texas Cancer Registry and from the Census ranging from 2001 to 2014 to analyze the rates of cancer in residents living within 30 miles of any of the state’s oil refineries.

The Study’s Findings

After analyzing data for 6 million people, 800,000 of which were cancer patients, the study concluded that Texans living near oil refineries were more likely to be at risk for developing multiple types of cancer, including bladder, prostate, breast, lung, and colon cancer, as well as lymphoma. 34% of residents with a cancer diagnosis lived near an oil refinery.

In addition, they noted differences in the stages of cancer diagnoses in relation to the person’s distance from the refinery. They found a correlation between the distance a person lived from a refinery and stages of cancer found, with people living 10 miles or closer to a refinery much more likely to have a more advanced cancer diagnosis than those living further out.

The researchers were in part inspired to conduct the study because of other studies done showing the increased likelihood of refinery workers contracting cancer than people working in other jobs and industries. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Stephen Williams, said that they wanted to learn more about the health risks involved with those living and working near these refineries. He noted that smaller studies have been done by individual refineries with their employees, but that he and his team wanted to look into things a little more deeply.

However, it is important to note the limitations of the study. For instance, while the heat maps charted by the researchers showed higher rates of lymphoma and various other cancers near these refineries, particularly in the greater Houston area, Williams noted that there are many other petrochemical processing facilities and other similar businesses in the areas studied that could be contributing to these statistics as well. Furthermore, the study does not take into account a person’s job or health history, which could also affect the data. There are also some socioeconomic factors that come into play. For example, the study found that in addition to being more likely to develop cancer, citizens living within 10 miles of refineries were more likely to have lower incomes, many below the poverty level. This could also mean that these people are more likely to receive an advanced diagnosis due to a lack of access to adequate medical care.

Researchers aren’t sure of the relationship all of these factors have to each other and how they all relate within the confines of the study. Overall, however, they agree that the data does show a correlation between distance from oil refineries and the likelihood of disease. That said, it will take more research to determine whether or not exposure from those refineries is what specifically caused cancer within these nearby citizens. Williams stated that the study is “hypothesis generating,” and that it “stimulates further research questions.”

Major Environmental Concerns

Past studies have shown that exposure to toxins associated with oil refineries increases the risk of cancer. The cancer-causing pollutants most commonly associated with refineries are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. With Texas a leading player in the nation’s oil production and petrochemical industries, activists have long been concerned for the people who live nearby these refineries.

The Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog nonprofit that advocates for the enforcement of environmental laws, released an analysis earlier this year highlighting a few Houston refineries found to have been skirting EPA regulations. Ilan Levin, the associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, says that they’ve tracked refinery emissions, done enforcement work, and looked at refineries’ permits. “They’re allowed by law in their permits to release very dangerous carcinogens like benzene and other dangerous (pollutants).”

However, national environmental restrictions have only lessened since the start of the pandemic. The federal government has been under fire in recent months for allowing these companies to be much more lax with their emissions. Earlier this year, Harris County, Texas joined 13 other counties in a lawsuit against the EPA in opposition of the rollback of their chemical safety regulations that could increase the risk of explosions.

In the last four years, the federal government has rolled back more than 80 environmental rules and regulations, with another 20 in the works. While some of these rollbacks have since been fought and/or struck down in court, overall, they have massively weakened limitations on emissions and air pollution, drilling and extraction, water pollution, and toxic pollution, a major concern for both environmental advocates and innocent citizens residing nearby these facilities.

If you or a loved one has contracted an illness, been injured, or has suffered property damage due to unsafe environmental conditions, contact our Environmental Claim Lawyers to see how we can help. Call 713-224-9000, or click below to fill out our contact form.