A state-sponsored study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found “significant associations” between gas industry activity and medical conditions in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Children living closer to natural gas wells in western Pennsylvania were more likely to develop a rare form of cancer, and nearby residents of all ages had an increased chance of severe asthma, according to a recently released report.
The taxpayer-funded research conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found what they called significant associations between gas industry activity and two medical conditions: asthma and lymphoma in children.
The results of the research add to a body of evidence that suggests links between fracking and certain health problems. Yet, researchers were unable to say whether the drilling caused the health problems, because the study wasn’t designed to do that.
Instead, the study focused on answering this question: does living near fracking or other environmental hazards in southwestern Pennsylvania increase the risk of specific health issues.
In the cancer study, researchers found that children who lived within 1 mile of a well had five to seven times the chance of developing lymphoma compared with children who lived 5 miles or farther from a well. That equates to 60 to 84 lymphoma cases per million children living near wells, versus 12 per million among kids living farther away.
For asthma, the researchers concluded that people with the breathing condition who lived near wells were more likely to have severe reactions while gas was being extracted compared with people who don’t live near wells. However, researchers said they found no consistent association for severe reactions during periods when crews were building, drilling and fracking the well.
Meanwhile, the researchers said their findings on preterm births and birth weights among families living closer to gas wells echoed the mixed conclusions in similar studies. There were hints that gas production might reduce birth weights by less than an ounce on average.
The study was conducted from 2021-2023 and included data from area health records from 1990-2020. The $2.5 million project was undertaken after families of pediatric cancer patients who live amid the nation’s most prolific natural gas reservoir in western Pennsylvania expressed concerns to former Gov. Tom Wolf.
An extremely rare form of bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, had been diagnosed in dozens of children and young adults in a heavily drilled area outside Pittsburgh, and those families were instrumental in pushing Wolf to commission the study.
But the researchers said they found no association between gas drilling and childhood leukemia, brain and bone cancers.
The Pennsylvania-funded study comes on the heels of other studies that found higher rates of cancer, asthma, low birth weights and other afflictions among people who live near drilling fields around the country.
Raina Rippel, former director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, called the findings the “tip of the toxic iceberg and we are only just beginning to understand what is out there.”
There is, she warned, “a lot more cancer waiting in the wings.”
A number of states have strengthened their laws around fracking and waste disposal over the past decade. However, researchers have repeatedly said that regulatory shortcomings leave an incomplete picture of the amount of toxic substances the industry emits into the air, injects into the ground or produces as waste.
Establishing the cause of health problems is challenging.
It can be difficult or impossible for researchers to determine exactly how much exposure people had to pollutants in air or water, and scientists often cannot rule out other contributing factors.
The gas industry has maintained that fracking is safe, and groups reviewing the studies said that protecting public health is their highest priority.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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