Childhood Cancers May be Caused by Environmental Factors in Pennsylvania

by Duane Nichols on June 18, 2019

Farm shown near Marathon’s cryogenic separation plant at Chartiers, Washington, PA

Gov. Tom Wolf asked to investigate possible link between Penna. fracking and childhood cancers

From an Article by Don Hopey & David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 6/17/19

More than 100 organizations and 800 individuals have signed a public letter to Gov. Tom Wolf calling on him to direct the state Department of Health to investigate potential links between shale gas development and a proliferation of childhood cancers.

The letter, which environmental groups plan to deliver to the governor and state Health Department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine via email Monday, and hand deliver during a demonstration in Harrisburg Wednesday, also requests that all new shale gas permitting be suspended until the health investigation can demonstrate the cancers are not linked to shale gas drilling and fracking operations.

“This is a public health crisis that requires immediate and significant action,” according to the text of the four-page letter.

Emily Wurth helped lead the letter-writing effort and said the broad-based support for examination of health impacts of shale gas development was prompted by the ongoing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series “Human toll: Risk and exposure in the gas lands.”

Why are there high numbers of childhood cancers in southwestern Pennsylvania?

Stories in the Post-Gazette series document up to 67 cases of childhood and young adult cancers in Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties where shale gas operations are active. The total includes 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.

“The letter references the investigative reporting and scientific evidence that strongly suggests a link between childhood cancers and shale gas operations,” said Ms. Wurth, who is organizing co-director of Food & Water Watch and Food & Water Action. “We organized this strong response in just a couple of weeks from the about 125 organizations and even more individuals who are concerned about what they’ve read.”

A state health department review of 12 Ewing sarcoma cases in Westmoreland County and six in Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County failed to conclude that either met the criteria for designation as a “cancer cluster.” The study only included three of the six Canon-McMillan area cases in the cluster assessment.

The shale gas industry has vigorously denied there is any link between human health impacts and the air and water pollutants emitted by its widespread and expanding drilling, fracking, processing and transport operations.

Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer said in written responses to questions: “We are disappointed that some activists choose to sensationalize tragedy, make inflammatory suggestions that run counter to the views of respected medical experts, top environmental and health regulators and decades of scientific data and research.”

He said the industry is committed to protecting and enhancing the health and safety of the environment and communities where it operates.

Raina Ripple, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a Washington County nonprofit that does educational outreach about the health impacts of shale gas drilling, said the multiple childhood cancers focus public concern and present an opportunity to press public officials for answers.

“This is a moment in time to raise these concerns about our children’s health and the cancer rate, and we feel the governor would be remiss in not addressing these concerns,” Ms. Ripple said.

She said there are still significant questions about what is spiking the cancer rates and noted multiple factors may be contributing to that problem, including genetics, legacy pollution and radiation sites, lifestyle factors and environmental exposures.

“But what is new in the last five or 10 years that could have triggered this?” Ms. Ripple said. “Many in the community are quick to seize on legacy causes like radioactive waste but something has changed. The indices of childhood cancer are out of whack. And what’s changed, what’s new, is the shale gas industry.”

The letter notes that about 12,000 wells have been drilled and fracked in the four mostly rural southwestern Pennsylvania counties in the last 15 years, bringing in a host of toxic chemicals, many of them known carcinogens.

Many of those chemicals pose a high risk to children and at-risk populations, the letter states. It also notes there are numerous peer-reviewed public health studies that have found an association between shale gas drilling and fracking and low birth weights in babies, birth defects, asthma and other respiratory problems.

Scientific associations don’t prove that those health impacts are linked to shale gas development activities, but they could be, and should be the subject of more scientific study, said Sandra Steingraber, a biologist at Ithaca College and founder of Concerned Health Professionals of NY.

“We may be on the leading edge of what could be a real cancer crisis in the shale gas drilling and fracking industry,” said Ms. Steingraber, noting studies showing high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in the urine of gas well workers, and another that found children living within 500 feet of gas wells in Colorado have higher rates of leukemia.

The letter to the governor notes a Yale study that identified at least 55 fracking chemicals as known or possible carcinogens and recommends further research into the relationship between shale gas development and the “risk of cancer in general and childhood leukemia in particular.”

“As a biologist, what I see so far is little arrows pointing in a direction, arrows that say, ‘Dig here,’” Ms. Steingraber said.

“Based on its air and water emissions, we should look at the role of the drilling and fracking industry,” she said. “Those are reasonable questions to ask.”

Among the organizations signing the letter are Allegheny County Clean Air Now; Climate Reality Project: Pittsburgh & SWPA chapter; Thomas Merton Center EcoJustice Working Group; Green Party of Allegheny County; Allegheny County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America; Marcellus Outreach Butler; PennEnvironment; Pennsylvania Council of Churches; Physicians for Social Responsibility-Pennsylvania; and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Beaver County.

In addition to Ms. Steingraber, other notable individuals signing the letter include actors Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley, “Gasland” documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, and Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change focused State legislators signed on include Reps Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia; Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester; Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia; Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville; and Summer Lee, D-Swissvale.

“We’ve been seeing different challenges to the investment this state has been making in shale gas development and fracking,” said Ms. Otten, whose district doesn’t have drilling but does have pipelines and pumping stations. “It’s beyond time to take a pause, a breath, to ensure that we’re moving Pennsylvania in the right direction and upholding our statutory responsibilities in ensuring public health and safety.”


See Also: Industry criticizes ‘ridiculous’ request to halt shale gas drilling, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 18, 2019

1. The Marcellus Shale Coalition is asking Gov. Tom Wolf “to reject the ridiculous request” to shut down shale gas development in southwestern Pennsylvania until the state determines whether its pollutants are linked with childhood cancer.

2. The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project will host a “Community Meeting on Childhood Cancers in SW PA,” including Canon-McMillan cancers, from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday 6/18/19 at Bella Sera, 414 Morganza Road, North Strabane, Washington County.

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