Prove your humanity

Environmental and public health advocates want the Pennsylvania Department of Health to expand the scope of a pair of studies on fracking and health effects.

The studies are looking into whether fracking has any relationship with the incidence of childhood cancer, asthma and poor birth outcomes. 

The state funded the research after pressure from families in Washington County who have lost children to Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. 

So far the studies are designed to examine only activities at oil and gas well pads and compressor stations. But groups representing the families met with Department of Health officials, including interim director Alison Beam, on Monday to ask that the study be expanded to include facilities that handle fracking waste, which can contain high levels of radioactive materials. 

“We’re talking about waste from fracking wells, either in liquid form or in solid form that is frequently transported by truck and delivered frequently to landfills,” said Alison Steele, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. “There are concerns from these communities that that could be behind the recent spike in childhood cancers in the area.”

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

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh are conducting the studies, which are expected to take three years. 

Steele praised the scientists leading the research, but doubted the study will change the picture about fracking’s impact on public health. Scientists have found correlations between fracking and the incidence of a variety of health problems, like asthmaheart problems, and pre-term birth and low birthweight.  

“It’s a high quality research team. They’re sensitive to the concerns of the residents in these communities. But as with everything, time and resources are limited,” Steele said. “And we aren’t entirely sure that another epidemiological study will tell us anything we don’t already know.” 

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.

But the health department reported in March 2020 that the incidence rates for childhood cancer in these counties “did not reach statistical significance.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition says that health and safety is the industry’s “top commitment” and that it looks forward to working collaboratively with the state as the studies progress. The group points to a state Department of Environmental Protection study showing “little or limited potential” for public exposure to radioactive waste from fracking. 

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.


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