A team of physicians, environmental scientists and students at the University of Texas Medical Branch have completed a multi-year study of cancer rates among individuals living in close proximity to oil refineries and have found statistically significant increases in several cancers among those living nearest to these facilities.

The study, Proximity to Oil Refineries and Risk of Cancer: A Population-Based Analysis, was led by Dr. Stephen B. Williams, Chief of Urology and a tenured professor of urology and radiology at UTMB. It was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

According to Williams, previous studies on this topic have been done, but most have been outside the United States. His team studied the Texas Cancer Registry and US Census Data from 2001 – 2014 to compare rates of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, lung, lymphoma and prostate) of people within 30 miles of active Texas oil refineries. The team observed that proximity to an oil refinery was associated with a significantly increased risk of cancer diagnosis across all cancer types. People living within 10 miles of an active refinery were more likely to have advanced disease or metastatic disease.

“Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, there are more than 6.3 million people over 20 years old who reside within a 30 mile radius of 28 active refineries in Texas,” Williams said. “Our team accounted for patient factors (age, sex, race, smoking, household income and education) and other environmental factors, such as oil well density and air pollution and looked at new cancer diagnoses based on cancers with the highest incidence in the US and/or previously suspected to be at increased risk according to oil refinery proximity.”

Separate models were developed for each type of cancer being studied. Researchers observed statistically significant increases of localized disease across all cancer types among those who lived 0-10 miles from a refinery as compared to those 21-30 miles, respectively. They also found that those who resided 0-10 miles from an oil refinery had an increased risk of more advanced disease at diagnosis compared with persons residing 21-30 miles away.

Hazardous pollutants known to be emitted from refineries include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene compounds, as well as other hydrocarbon pollutants and volatile compounds.

“Our findings are important and certainly support the need for further individual level investigation into the risks of carcinogenesis linked to proximity to an oil refinery. It definitely warrants further investigation including epidemiological field work as those results are not causal,” Williams said.

Williams says annual physicals are the best way to monitor overall health and recommends following individual screening guidelines for different cancer types. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) is an excellent resource for patients and providers.

Other authors include Yong Shan, Ph.D., Usama Jazzar, B.S., Dr. Preston S. Kerr, Dr. Ikenna Okereke, , Dr. V. Suzanne Klimberg, , Dr. Douglas S. Tyler, David S. Lopez, M.S., John D. Prochaska, DrPH, MPH, Cornelis Elferink, Ph.D., Jacques G. Baillargeon, Ph.D., Yong-Fang Kuo, Ph.D., Hemalkumar B. Mehta, Ph.D., and Nagireddy Putluri, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine.

The study was conducted with the support of the Department of Defense Peer Reviewed Cancer Research Program (PRCRP) Career Development Award.