Student Spotlight
An honors project in the public interest

What do a black smudge on Google Earth, a school with record asthma rates, and the closing of a profitable factory have in common? The makings of a perfect Honors Project topic.

UIndy’s Ceciley Starkey, a Biology and Chemistry double major (and captain of the women’s tennis team), took it upon herself to investigate the unusual conditions surrounding the Coke Manufacturing Division of Citizens Gas in the city’s Fountain Square district. For almost 100 years, Fountain Square was home to a coking plant that converted coal to fuel. Although the plant helped provide electricity to many homes in the city, one major drawback was the release of a byproduct, benzene—a cancer-causing substance known to cause low birth weights, leukemia, and lymphoma if inhaled regularly.

Before the plant closed in 2007, Fountain Square consistently ranked highest in the state for benzene air pollution. And a study from the Environmental Protection Agency, Marion County Health Department, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management showed likely health concerns—one of which reported a significant rate of asthma among children in Indianapolis Public School 21, which is close to the coke plant.

Digging deeper

Yet when the study made no recommendation for the plant to close, the school to close, or the residents to move, Ceciley was more than a bit concerned. “I was not satisfied with authorities only finding inconclusive evidence that pollution was a problem and telling people that everything was okay,” says Ceciley, who graduated in May 2011. “Overall, I wanted to find more evidence that benzene was causing health problems for the Fountain Square area.”

The EPA and Health Department reports were able to conclude that the health effects were the result of the area’s socioeconomic factors, but Ceciley wanted to prove through her Honors Project that the levels of benzene caused a distinct public health concern.

Ceciley posed this question: “If I could find a similar area within Indianapolis without high amounts of benzene exposure and could compare the public health data, would I be able to prove that benzene did have a statistically significant effect on the residents of Fountain Square?”

Comparing neighborhoods

After some research, she chose Washington Park, an area five miles northwest of Fountain Square with an equivalent population, similar socioeconomic factors, and a lack of large amounts of benzene pollution. Professor Karen Hirsch from the School of Nursing, a knowledgeable source on public health issues, was able to help Ceciley get in close contact with the Marion County Health Department to find relevant health data from the two areas.

“I spent about a year and a half on the project, compiling available numbers, running T-tests, and looking for indications of benzene-related problems, like blood disorders and fertility problems, only to find that health department and hospital data was outdated, undefined, or inadequate. It was pretty frustrating.”

Ceciley’s results revealed that Fountain Square had significantly high benzene pollution levels, and there were many health problems with increased rates in the Fountain Square area. Still, she found that none of these rates were significantly higher statistically than at Washington Park.

“If my benzene project taught me one thing,” she says, “it was the apparent lack of education residents had about the prospective health problems they were faced with.”

In her Honors Project presentation, Ceciley boldly recommended that the state health department address the lack of public health data available for Indianapolis residents.

“As someone who is big into service, I hope I was able to plant the seed that adequate public data is necessary to build up our neighborhoods.”

—Tim Coxey ’11