The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health convened a public meeting Tuesday evening to release the findings of three studies that examine the relationship between living near fracking operations and childhood cancers, asthma and birth outcomes.

One study found that children living within a half-mile from a fracking well had a higher chance of developing cancer. The results showed that the chances of a child developing lymphoma “were 5-7 fold greater when living within 1 mile of a well compared to children with no wells within 5 miles.” The study concluded that those living closest and among the “highest density” of fracking activity were at the highest risk for developing the rare cancer. 

In 2019, then-Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration allocated $3 million to research health concerns for people living in close proximity to fracking operations in Southwestern Pennsylvania. There was a particular interest by many parents if there was a link between Ewing sarcoma and fracking.

The study found “no evidence of an association” between proximity to fracking and Ewing sarcoma, childhood leukemia and other brain and bone cancers. The study was not designed to identify clusters of cancer.

A separate study found that people with asthma are four to five times more likely to have an asthma attack if they live near unconventional natural gas development wells during the production phase. It found a “strong link” between the production phase of unconventional natural gas development and “severe exacerbations, emergency department visits and hospitalization for asthma in people living within 10 miles of one or more wells producing natural gas.”

“The asthma study, to me, is a bombshell,” said Dr. Ned Ketyer, a retired physician who works with Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit advocacy group. He pointed to the magnitude of risk and also that the probability and severity appear to rise during the production phase, which lasts an average of six years. “These wells are causing severe problems and that’s going to continue for as long as a well produces,” he said.

Dr. Ned Ketyer, a retired physician who works with Physicians for Social Responsibility, questions researchers after they presented their findings on the relationship between fracking and public health at PennWest University in California, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

After the results were released Tuesday, Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Callahan criticized the asthma study’s methodology, claiming it relies on “faulty metrics.”

“As an industry rooted in science and engineering, we take objective and transparent research seriously,” he said in a statement. He also said that past research based on field monitoring has demonstrated that “natural gas development is not detrimental to public health.”

The final study showed that mothers who lived near active wells were more likely to have smaller babies, and that babies were about 1 ounce smaller at birth when born to mothers who lived near active wells during production, compressor stations or facilities that accept fracking waste.

The studies included Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties and considered observational health records from 1990-2020.

James Fabisak, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh who presented the research, noted at the Tuesday meeting, which drew nearly 100 attendees, that the study has several limitations, such as the fact that it’s designed to examine associations with disease, not the cause.

Cause for concern

For more than a decade, rare childhood cancers have stirred concern in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Dozens of cases of Ewing sarcoma and other types of cancers have been identified in communities at the heart of the shale boom beginning as early as 2010. And soon after, when kids began to die, parents began to seek answers.

In April 2019, after parents called on the state to investigate a number of cases in Washington County and specifically the Canon-McMillan School District, the Pennsylvania Department of Health [DOH] released a report that said there was no cancer cluster: the sample size was too small to determine it to be so. The agency assured residents at a meeting at Canon-McMillan High School that October that there was no cause for alarm.

The 2019 DOH study found a 125% increase in bone cancer prevalence in Washington County, and that rates of Ewing sarcoma in the Canon-McMillan School District were three times higher than expected between 2005 and 2017.

But the report also stated that rates of Ewing sarcoma were not “consistently or statistically significantly higher than expected” in either Washington County or the district.

In May 2019, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette identified 27 cases of the rare pediatric bone cancer, of which there are roughly 250 cases reported per year in the United States.

At the time, there were a number of outstanding concerns among the community, explained Heaven Sensky, an organizer with the Center for Coalfield Justice who attended high school at Canon-McMillan alongside several people who were diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma.

Janice Blanock, whose son, Luke, died of Ewing sarcoma in 2016, questions researchers following a presentation of the results of three studies that examined the relationship between fracking and public health at PennWest University in California, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. “As parents we lost one of the greatest gifts in life,” she said. “We need changes from this industry, and we need it soon.”

The DOH hadn’t included at least three known cases of Ewing sarcoma in its 2019 assessment, and with such a small sample, those cases mattered. The community asked the department to revise its data, but when the DOH came to Washington County to present findings, they still hadn’t included the cases in the analysis. When parents attempted to ask the agency about a potential link to fracking, they were told to remain within the boundaries of the research, which hadn’t considered industrial development in the Marcellus shale.

Several days later, with questions unanswered and suspicions percolating, the Center for Coalfield Justice, Physicians for Social Responsibility and another nonprofit, the Environmental Health Project [EHP], organized a bus to Harrisburg. Families wanted an in-depth explanation of what their kids were being exposed to in their air and water and answers to why there were so many cases of this rare disease popping up in concert with the shale boom.

After being denied a meeting with Wolf, roughly 40 people, including parents who had lost children, packed the space outside of his office, shouting into the vestibule and through his open office door: “We want to talk to you! People are dying, we want to know why,” Ketyer recalled. “Come out and talk to us!” Eventually the governor appeared, and one by one the families told him their stories. Four days later, Wolf announced that Pennsylvania would spend $3 million to research the potential health effects of fracking over the next three years.

The University of Pittsburgh was chosen as the partner institution in 2021, and preliminary results were expected in October 2022. Then the University of Pittsburgh and the DOH pulled out of a planned community meeting at the last minute. Several members of the study’s external advisory board, including Ketyer and Sensky, resigned after state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washinton, sent a letter urging the DOH not to participate in the forum and questioned the participation of “anti-fossil fuel advocates” CCJ and EHP.

On Tuesday, residents were finally briefed on the findings.

What else is known

Dozens of studies show an epidemiological correlation between shale gas development and poor health outcomes, and there is a growing body of evidence that shows adverse health impacts on people living nearby.

Last August, a study from the Yale School of Public Health found that children living in close proximity to fracking sites in Pennsylvania are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia.

Not a single study shows fracking to be safe, said Ketyer. “It’s inherently dangerous.”

He added: “We already have enough studies showing it’s not only possible, but probable and likely that people are being harmed. Health protective policies need to be put in place to protect people.”

James Fabisak, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh, presents the findings of three studies that examine the relationship between fracking and public health at PennWest University in California, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, Aug 15, 2023. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/Rtvsrece)

On the campaign trail, Gov. Josh Shapiro pledged support for fracking reforms recommended by the 43rd state grand jury commissioned by his office as attorney general. Suggestions included expanding no-drill zones from 500 to 2,500 feet from a home. It remains to be seen if these reforms will be prioritized by his administration as governor.

“It’s really hard to live in constant fear,” said Sensky. She grew up with Luke Blanock, who died from Ewing sarcoma at 19 years old in 2016, and a number of others who’ve been diagnosed. “A lot of us are holding fears about getting cancer that most 26-year-olds don’t hold. It’s kind of like waiting for who’s next.

“We know there is something wrong in our communities,” Sensky concluded. “We know enough. It’s time to take action. Epidemiological studies are never going to show us causation. They never have.”

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on Instagram @quinnglabicki.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...