Fracking Linked to Increased Cases of Lymphoma in Pennsylvania Children, Study Finds

Children living within a mile of a natural gas fracking well were up to seven times more likely to suffer from lymphoma, a rare kind of cancer, than those who had no such wells within five miles of their homes, according to a long-awaited study that adds to a growing number of investigations into possible links between fracking and illness.

The study by the University of Pittsburgh for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, unveiled late Tuesday along with two others looking at health risks related to fracking, also found that children have a higher risk of developing lymphoma the closer they live to a fracking operation and that the incidence of the disease among those living within a mile of a well far exceeds the rate for the United States as a whole. 

The second study found “moderate to strong” data suggesting links between  the production phase of fracking—also known as unconventional natural gas development, or UNGD—and a measure of infant health called “small for gestational age.” The third study found “strong evidence” to suggest an increased risk of asthma during the production phase, when a well is producing gas after it has been fracked – a period that can last for years.

 The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group for the Pennsylvania natural gas industry, said all three studies failed to consider other factors that may have contributed to public illnesses.

“As an industry rooted in science and engineering, we take objective and transparent research seriously. Past research based on actual field monitoring in Pennsylvania and nationwide demonstrates natural gas development is not detrimental to public health,” the group’s president, David Callahan, said in a statement. “Our industry’s commitment to the health and safety of our workers and the communities where we’re privileged to operate is second to none, as our members continue to responsibly supply clean, reliable domestic natural gas essential to modern life.”

The new studies  followed an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which reported in 2019 that there had been 67 cases of rare childhood cancers in four heavily fracked counties of southwest Pennsylvania from 2008-18. That coverage fueled long-standing accusations by environmentalists and community-health advocates that the natural gas industry has been polluting air, soil and groundwater with a cocktail of chemicals used in fracking since the practice was widely adopted by the industry starting in the mid-2000s.

But the new study also found no links between fracking and childhood leukemia, brain and bone cancers, including Ewing’s family of tumors, which were among the kinds of childhood cancer that were brought to light by the Post-Gazette investigation.

The UPitt/DOH study, based on 498 diagnosed childhood cancer cases in eight southwest Pennsylvania counties from 2010-19, was the first to look for links between the industry and the four most common kinds of childhood cancers—leukemia, lymphoma, central nervous system (CNS) tumors, and malignant bone tumors. It was also the first to find strong evidence of a link to lymphoma, and urged other researchers to look further at that connection.

“This comprehensive analysis revealed consistent associations for various metrics of UNGD activities, which were highly correlated with each other and the risk of childhood cancer outcomes, further strengthening a probable link between UNGD activities in general and risk of childhood cancer,” the authors said, in a 105-page report.

Lymphoma may emerge in response to environmental risk factors such as the toxic chemicals used in fracking, the study said. It cited polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and benzene as among the contaminants used by the industry, and called for more investigation of those links. “Future studies with biomarkers for exposure to UNGD activities may clarify the current study’s observed association between hydraulic fracturing and risk of lymphoma,” it said. 

The study also looked at natural gas-related facilities such as compressor stations and wastewater ponds that were linked to childhood cancers, and found no evidence of that. 

An August 2022 study by the Yale School of Public Health found that children in Pennsylvania who grew up within roughly a mile of fracking wells are twice as likely as other young people to develop the most common form of juvenile leukemia. The study also found that children born to pregnant women who lived near fracking wells were nearly three times as likely as other newborns to be diagnosed with leukemia.

The new UPitt/DOH research  will add to more than 2,200 earlier studies  on the risks and harms attributed to fracking worldwide which have been compiled and updated periodically since 2014 in a “compendium” published by the nonprofits Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York.

The birth outcomes study that found “moderate to strong” data suggesting links between the production phase of natural gas development and a measure of infant health called “small for gestational age” was based on about a quarter-million births to 171,000 Pennsylvania mothers from 2010-20. But it found no evidence to support concerns that fracking led to preterm births.

The number of U.S. wells fracked for both natural gas and oil surged by more than ten times to some 300,000 between 2000 and 2015, and their economic benefits have come with the price of harms to public health, the birth-outcomes study said.

“This rapid growth has corresponded to a range of economic benefits, including decreased energy costs and greatly increased production of both oil and natural gas,” it said. “However, mounting evidence suggests that hydraulic fracturing may have adverse impacts on public health and the environment.”

The third study that found “strong evidence” to suggest an increased risk of asthma during fracking’s  production phase examined  the living situations of more than 40,000 patients in an eight-county area of southwestern Pennsylvania between 2011 and 2020. But the study found no data indicating higher asthma rates during the preparation, drilling or hydraulic fracturing phases.

In 2019, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration allocated $3 million for  the studies, responding to pleas by the families of childhood cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state.

Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the studies, called the report on asthma and fracking a “bombshell” because it indicates that asthma sufferers who live near natural gas sites are four to five more likely to get attacks than those who live further away. He said during a presentation of the reports at the University of Pittsburgh that the findings on how infants who are  “small for gestational age” are significant because that condition “can last a lifetime.” Referring to the findings that children living within a mile of natural gas fracking wells were up to seven times more likely to suffer from lymphoma, Ketyer said that it was “very difficult” to do cancer studies because the numbers of cases are small and the disease typically takes a long time to develop. 

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Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based in western Pennsylvania, said she’s not surprised to see only a moderate correlation between fracking and cancer, given the long-term nature of the disease.

“We urge the state, particularly the Department of Health, to monitor public health going forward and to take proactive measures to reduce the risk of exposures and work with communities to help them protect themselves from harm,” Steele said in a statement responding to the report.

Raina Rippel, former director of EHP, called the reports “the tip of the toxic iceberg” given that there is no sign that the natural gas industry is curtailing its fracking practices. She urged state officials to step up their efforts to monitor fracking and health in the long term.

“We need to track what the exposed population are going to experience in the next five, ten, twenty years,” she said. “Children should not be the canaries in the coal mine here.”

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