Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in late November announced that he is directing the state Department of Health to undertake two research studies into the health effects of hydraulic fracturing and the incidence of childhood cancer cases that have been reported in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Both studies will be undertaken in conjunction with an academic center that has not yet been named.
The first study will look at health conditions, such as asthma and birth outcomes, both being conditions that other studies have previously linked to certain industries. “Doing this in Southwestern Pennsylvania will serve to potentially replicate study findings from other regions using similar methodology and will greatly add to the understanding of the potential health effects related to natural gas development,” a release from the governor’s office states.
The second project will be a study of childhood cancers, including Ewing Sarcoma, in response to concerns raised recently about the number of young people with rare cancers in the across the state, with many of these cases located within the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County. The study will use data from the cancer registry and cancer referral centers and will determine if those being diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma or childhood cancers are more often exposed to fracking than a control group.
“Ewing Sarcoma is rare and currently has no known environmental cause, but it is imperative that we do all that we can to thoroughly research and advance the science on the health effects of oil and gas extraction,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s announcement that he is committing $3 million over three years to the studies came days after a group of families of young people diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma and other cancers confronted the governor in Harrisburg and asked for more research into a possible link. The state Department of Health previously undertook a study into whether a “cancer cluster” exists but determined it does not.
However, an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette determined that that six young people in the district have been diagnosed with the rare bone cancer in the past decade, and that 27 cases were reported in a four-county area. Just about 250 cases of Ewing sarcoma are diagnosed each year in the entire country. The newspaper found a higher than expected incidence of other childhood cancers as well.
At an October public meeting with Department of Health officials, families were critical of the DOH study, saying that incomplete information was used, and pressed for further action. Local legislators also backed the call for more research.
“It is essential to better understand the scientific evidence of public health issues related to hydraulic fracturing. These studies will provide us with a more in-depth understanding of this issue than we have been able to do with the resources at our disposal,” said Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.
In response to Wolf’s announcement, a joint statement from the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association expressed support for the research.
“We continue to strongly support transparent, rigorous and objective research that comprehensively and thoroughly evaluates all potential factors and other efforts aimed at better understanding these highly complex and difficult matters. We are committed to working closely with the administration on this research – as noted in our letter to the governor earlier this year – and encourage state officials to neutrally, fairly and without bias evaluate all potential factors,” the statement reads.
“The concerns in these communities are shared with our industry. We live here too and have no higher priority than protecting and ensuring the health and safety of our communities, especially our kids and grandkids.”