Pet Coke: Breakfast of Champions?


Pet coke piles in Chicago as of 10/19/13 by Josh Mogerman, used via Creative Commons license

This morning NPR informed me that petroleum coke and the Koch brothers have struck again – this time in my hometown of Chicago.

Petroleum coke, adorably nicknamed pet coke, made headlines this past summer when it was improperly stored by Koch Carbon and billowed into homes and neighborhoods in Detroit, where I currently live.

But wait. That’s a lie. I live just outside of Detroit in a wealthier suburb, just as I grew up outside of Chicago in a tree-lined college town. That makes a big difference. No one would dream of dumping three-story-high piles of industrial soot in my current backyard or the one I played in as a child. Those neighborhoods are simply too wealthy, too powerful, too ready and willing to sue.

Communities near the pet coke storage sites in both Detroit and Chicago are hurting financially. We all know about the struggles of bankrupt Detroit, where it takes about an hour for emergency workers to respond to the direst 911 calls. Southeast Chicago, once an industrial hub, has faced many of the same challenges as Detroit. This year, both areas became dumping grounds for increasing quantities of pet coke (in some cases, without a permit).

That increase in pet coke is due to ramped-up tar sands drilling in Canada. Pet coke is a product of the tar sands refining process. Although it is too sooty to be used for energy here in the United States, countries like Mexico and China will buy it to use as fuel. That means neighborhoods like South Deering in Chicago wind up serving as holding stations for pet coke while companies sell it internationally and arrange for its transport. But this pet coke sits and waits in open-air piles. Strong gusts of wind cause black plumes of dust that travel into neighborhoods and homes.

View of a pet coke plume from the Detroit piles on 7/27/13, via 3860remerson on YouTube

The residents of these neighborhoods have found black dust coating their floors, countertops, and even food. They describe it getting into their eyes, mouths, and lungs. I find these exposures alarming. But Laurie C. McCausland, who represents the Koch brothers’ interests as the deputy general counsel for Koch Companies Public Sector, thinks that’s silly. According to WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, McCausland says that overall pet coke is safe. WBEZ quotes her as follows:

“It’s unfair for people to be overly scared about this product. I think people just don’t have a lot of information.”

In a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune, Jim Watson, the Executive Director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, expressed a similar sentiment. He wrote:

“Extensive testing has revealed that petcoke has no observed carcinogenic, reproductive, or developmental effects in humans and a low potential to cause adverse effects on aquatic or terrestrial environments.”

I was curious if these statements were true. Has pet coke been extensively studied? And is the health concern surrounding pet coke just an instance of misinformed scaremongering like the anti-vaccination movement? I headed over to PubMed, the U.S. government’s comprehensive catalog of scholarly papers in science, health, and medicine. I searched for “petroleum coke” and got 56 results. Most of these papers had to do with 1) nifty chemical reactions you can do with pet coke, 2) how pet coke affects aquatic life, and 3) the health of people who make pet coke react with other potentially hazardous compounds for a living. I came across only three titles that appeared to be specific and relevant: one that assessed correlations between pet coke exposure and lung cancer in petroleum workers and two that tested the effects of pet coke exposure in mammalian animal models.

The most recent was published in the International Journal of Toxicology this year. The authors include representatives from ExxonMobil (first author), the American Petroleum Institute, and Shell (last author). From what I can tell, the remaining authors work for contract research laboratories (as in, paid by the oil companies). Another paper was published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine in 2012 by authors at ExxonMobil (first author) and Imperial Oil, although this study at least included collaborators from actual universities including McGill (last author). A third paper, published in 1987 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, was penned by representatives of Standard Oil, the American Petroleum Institute (last author), and two contract laboratory companies (first author). Not surprisingly, none of these papers conclude that pet coke is especially hazardous.

Even if I missed one (or even ten!) relevant articles in my search, I think it’s safe to say that the research is anything but “extensive.”  I haven’t yet combed through the three papers, nor am I the best person to evaluate their methods. Still, I do think it’s proper to question their impartiality and recommend that they be scrutinized by unbiased experts. We should also wonder if we are getting an accurate representation of such industry-funded research. When corporations and labs-for-hire come up with results they don’t like, they don’t have to (and often don’t) publish them. Yet when corporations do get a result that they like (for whatever reason, including a lack of statistical power), they are happy to publish it and thrust it into the hands of publicists and legal representatives like Ms. McCausland who tell us not to be silly; pet coke’s perfectly safe. That bias alone throws off a fair evaluation of the issue.

Residents of Southeastern Chicago on the pet coke,  via NRDCflix on YouTube

Modern (and ancient) history play like a broken record of chemicals, compounds, and practices that were harmless until suddenly they weren’t. Shoe stores once had x-ray machines so you could see how well your shoes fit – or just stare at your wiggling toe bones. We’ve seen the rise and fall of leaded paint and gasoline, asbestos, and thalidomide and now we’re learning about the dangers of plastics in our baby bottles and flame retardants in our cushions. There’s plenty of reason to suspect that pet coke exposure is no day at the health spa. Inhaled particulates irritate the airways and can, at the very least, exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Analysis of the Detroit pet coke dust showed that it also contained the toxic elements vanadium and selenium, although it’s not clear whether residents were exposed at high enough levels to cause ill effects. (While we actually require trace amounts of selenium,  further exposure is toxic.)

It seems to me that we need more information. We need impartial toxicologists, epidemiologists, and other specialists to pore over the papers published on the topic and start conducting unbiased experiments of their own. And while we wait, we need to protect the residents who live in the shadow of pet coke. Pet coke piles should be enclosed so that the dust can’t escape into communities, schools, and homes.

I find myself wondering how much faith people like Laurie McCausland, Jim Watson, and Charles Koch truly put in those industry-funded studies on pet coke. Would they be willing to move their families into a community coated with pet coke? Or is it only safe enough for those families who can’t afford to live elsewhere?

Between permit oversights and unlawful air pollution, the Koch brothers’ companies may already have broken the law. But if they are putting vulnerable people’s health and well being at risk to make a buck? Well that truly is criminal.

Schnatter AR, Nicolich MJ, Lewis RJ, Thompson FL, Dineen HK, Drummond I, Dahlman D, Katz AM, & Thériault G (2012). Lung cancer incidence in Canadian petroleum workers. Occupational and environmental medicine, 69 (12), 877-82 PMID: 23077208

McKee RH, Herron D, Beatty P, Podhasky P, Hoffman GM, Swigert J, Lee C, & Wong D (2013). Toxicological Assessment of Green Petroleum Coke. International journal of toxicology PMID: 24179031

2 responses

  1. Thank you for your article. The petcoke battle that was waged in Detroit has now moved to River Rouge to the south. Detroit kicked them out and now we must fight the battle in a small, struggling city with few resources. I am desperately searching for evidence of damage from the dust but keep finding myself in the same position. Few, if any studies that are unbiased. The 1987 study you reference was used as proof that it does not cause cancer, though even as a layperson I can see there are many respiratory problems caused. I guess it’s okay to instill asthma on pot children as long as it’s not cancer. Total crap. Thanks again for some reading leads.

    • Judy, thanks for reading and commenting. I didn’t realize the pet coke just moved down the river. You are already seeing an increase in respiratory problems there? Are the piles covered or contained at all? I’m not an expert on toxicity, but I’d be happy to help in any way I can, from reading papers to documenting what’s happening. Please don’t hesitate to email me at becca [at] gardenofthemind [dot] com.

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