Prove your humanity

Two state-funded studies to determine whether fracking had anything to do with a group of childhood cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania are receiving criticism from advocates for affected families. 

Gov. Wolf announced the studies last year after pressure from families of cancer patients in Washington County. The state says it will be partnering with an academic institution to conduct the studies, but has not announced which one. 

But at a recent online ‘town hall’ on the topic, advocates for the families of some of children and young adults who have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer, say they are being cut out of the process of constructing the studies. 

The department rejected their request to establish a “process overview panel” that would consist of community members and public health experts to advise scientists on how to conduct the studies, said Laura Dagley, a nurse and medical advocacy coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility, an environmental health group working with the families. 

“It would not only provide crucial insight and expertise to the department in the execution of these studies, but we hoped it would go a long way towards building and maintaining trust with the community,” Dagley said. 

Dagley said the Department of Health officials rejected another request to examine radioactivity in fracking waste as part of the study. 

“We were told…that the studies were funded at the request of the community to focus on unconventional oil and gas activity, not radioactive waste streams,” Dagley said. “This statement from the Department of Health, it shows a complete lack of understanding of…not only what the community is asking for, (but) a lack of understanding of the radioactivity that is present in oil and gas operations.”

The Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment. 

Drill cuttings and liquid waste from oil and gas can contain high levels of naturally-occuring radioactive materials, like radium. High levels of radium have been detected in leachate, or runoff, from landfills that accept drill cuttings in Pennsylvania. And scientists recently found airborne radioactivity levels were higher downwind of fracking sites

The state Department of Environmental Protection found “little or limited potential for radiation exposure to workers or the public” from fracking operations in a study from 2016. 

Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008. The cases were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Unlike other cancers, Ewing sarcoma has no known environmental causes.

The Department of Health reported in March it found the incidence rates for both Ewing sarcoma and childhood cancer in counties with fracking were “slightly higher” than the rest of the state, “but the difference was small and did not reach statistical significance.” 

Dagley said the Department of Health offered to meet in December with the families to discuss their concerns. 

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.