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Pitt researchers find higher risks for lymphoma and asthma for kids living near fracking sites

A shale gas well drilling site.
Keith Srakocic
Work continues at a shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa., March 12, 2020.

A team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found children living near shale gas activities in southwestern Pennsylvania had a higher risk of developing lymphoma.

But the group found no association between oil and gas activity and other childhood cancers, including Ewing’s sarcoma.

The researchers released the top-line results of their study at a public meeting at Pennsylvania Western University in California, Pa. (formerly California University of Pennsylvania).

The state of Pennsylvania paid for a pair of studies looking into potential health impacts of fracking after pressure from Washington County families of pediatric cancer patients in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Dozens of children and young adults were diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 4,000 wells since 2008, according to state records. The cases were first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“For childhood cancer, we found that children living close to active wells or near many wells had a higher risk for developing a cancer called lymphoma,” said James Fabisiak, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

“We did not find any increased risk for other childhood cancers, including the Ewings family of tumors, regarding unconventional natural gas drilling.”

Two workers pull a piece of heavy machinery.
Ralph Wilson
Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County, on April 23, 2010.

At the meeting, some family members questioned how the researchers could find no explanation for a spate of rare cancers that affected their loved ones in Washington County.

Christine Barton’s son Mitch, then 21, was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma in 2018 – one of several young people from the Canon-McMillan school district to come down with the exceedingly rare disease.

“My son Mitch is a Ewing sarcoma survivor, thank God. But so many have not survived this. And I’m going to tell you, I know a lot of people in the community, there are kids right now that are sick in Washington, Pa.,” she said. There has to be something going on here.”

Others questioned the methods of researchers; for instance, whether they included all of the local cancer patients in their dataset, which included medical records of 185,000 births, 46,000 asthma patients, and 498 childhood cancers from eight southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

But Ned Ketyer of Physicians for Social Responsibility said one of the study’s findings, that asthma cases increased for those near oil and gas activities, was a “bombshell”.

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Asthma is not a mild disease. Asthma is a very serious disease. It’s serious in young children, older children, adults. Very few people outgrow their asthma,” Ketyer said.

The researchers found “a strong link” between the production phase of shale gas development and “severe exacerbations, emergency department visits and hospitalizations for asthma.”

People with asthma had a 4 to 5 times greater chance of having an asthma attack if they lived near a fracked gas well while the well was producing gas.

Raina Rippel, who co-founded the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project as a response to mounting concerns over fracking, said she was not surprised by what the studies found. (The group, which Rippel has left, is funded by the Heinz Endowments, which also funds the Allegheny Front.)

“This study is just the tip of the toxic iceberg and we are only just beginning to understand what is out there. I see no sign that fracking is stopping or even slowing down,” said Rippel, who lives in Washington County.

What needs to happen now is we need to aggressively, assertively track and understand and ideally prevent what the exposed populations are going to experience in five, ten, 15, 20 years.”

In a statement, the Marcellus Shale Coalition said it empathized “with families facing health issues,” and said its “commitment to the health and safety of our workers and the communities where we’re privileged to operate is second to none.”

Sharon Watkins, the chief epidemiologist for the Department of Health, said the department would offer more educational opportunities, beginning in the fall, to better prepare local health care providers to identify and treat people exposed to fracking operations.

“We will be trying to provide information to your health care providers, so that they can work better with you to answer questions,” Watkins said.

Laura Dagley, a nurse and environmental and medical writer with Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that was a good start, but that the state needed to do more.

“Education is important, but we need more than just physician education,” Dagley said. “We need actual protection for the people living next to this.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.

Reid R. Frazier covers energy for The Allegheny Front. His work has taken him as far away as Texas and Louisiana to report on the petrochemical industry and as close to home as Greene County, Pennsylvania to cover the shale gas boom. His award-winning work has also aired on NPR, Marketplace and other outlets. Reid is currently contributing to StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WESA, WITF and WHYY covering the Commonwealth's energy economy. Email: