Children living near fracking sites in Pennsylvania have a higher risk of being diagnosed with leukemia, a new study from the Yale School of Public Health determined.
The study, published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that children living within 2 kilometers (roughly 1.24 miles) were two to three times more likely to have acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of cancer in children, than those who did not live near unconventional well development.
The study looked 405 children between ages 2-7 who had been diagnosed with ALL between and 2009 and 2017 and were included in the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry, along with five control children for each randomly selected by state Department of Health staff based on birth records, along with state data on oil and gas development. Pennsylvania was chosen because of its intense gas development, with more than 10,000 unconventional wells drilled between 2002 and 2017.
ALL is a type of leukemia that arises from mutations to lymphoid immune cells, and while it is highly curable it can lead to other health problems. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of unconventional well, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock layer at high pressure to fracture it and release the flow of gas.
That has raised concerns about potentially harmful chemicals being emitted into the air or getting into groundwater supplies. “Hundreds of chemicals have reportedly been used in UOGD injection water or detected in wastewater, some of which have been associated with leukemia,” the study states. Among those are heavy metals, radioactive material, and benzene.
The study found that drinking water could be a pathway of exposure, applying a new metric identifying the gas wells that fell within a child’s watershed area, and calculating the distance from the home to the well. However, the study’s authors noted that further examination of drinking water sources is needed, as many suburban areas are served by public water sources, while more rural, and heavily drilled, areas use private drinking water sources that rely on groundwater. The source of drinking water was not accounted for in the Yale study.
The study adds to research that could affect policies such as setback distances, or the minimum distance between a residence or other building and a well site. “Current setback distances in the United States are the subject of much debate,” the study states. Pennsylvania’s current minimum setback distance is 500 feet.
“Our findings of increased risk of ALL at distances of two kilometers or more from UOG operations, in conjunction with evidence from numerous other studies, suggest that existing setback distances, which may be as little as 150 feet, are insufficiently protective of children’s health,” said study author Cassandra Clark.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health is also studying whether there is a connection between fracking and childhood cancers in a study ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2020, after concerns were raised about the possibility of a cancer cluster among young people in the southwestern part of the state.