Pennsylvania residents call for action after study links fracking to asthma and lymphoma


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Mar 23, 2024

Pennsylvania residents call for action after study links fracking to asthma and lymphoma

Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. (Source: Creative Commons). By Audrey Carleton A “bombshell” set of studies that linked fracking exposure to lymphoma, asthma and

Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. (Source: Creative Commons).

By Audrey Carleton

A “bombshell” set of studies that linked fracking exposure to lymphoma, asthma and low birth weight is making waves in Pennsylvania and prompting calls by some for a ban on fracking in the state.

The studies were released only after years of pressure from people living in the heart of one the most active shale plays in the nation. Some of these residents have faced dire health consequences — and have had to battle repeated attempts by the fossil fuel industry to discredit their health concerns. For those on the front lines, the question now is what happens next.

The three studies co-published by the Pennsylvania state government and the University of Pittsburgh found serious health effects resulting from shale gas production in the southwestern part of the commonwealth. A study on the incidence of childhood cancer found five to seven times the rates of lymphoma among children who live within one mile of a natural gas well compared to those who live no closer than five miles from such a well.

“We are all at risk. And the risk is significant.”

– Dr. Ned Ketyer, Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania

A study on birth outcomes found a correlation between low birth weight and a mother’s proximity to active wells during their production phase — when oil or gas is collected from a well, after drilling fluid has been shot deep vertically, then horizontally, underground. And a study on asthma risk found a strong link between natural gas production and hospitalization for asthma in people living within 10 miles of a natural gas well.

These findings are backed up by a mountain of previous research. But for Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, who first called on state regulators to investigate fracking’s link to a grouping of rare childhood cancer cases in 2019, the asthma revelation is, nonetheless, a “bombshell.”

“I live in Washington County,” he said. “There is no resident who lives more than 10 miles away from a fracking well or another site of fracking infrastructure.

“We are all at risk,” he continued. “And the risk is significant.”

The road to that finding and others, released Aug. 15, was not an easy one, he told Capital & Main. Ketyer was among a group who first proposed the research in the wake of a 2019 investigative report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that found 67 rare cancer patients across four counties surrounding Pittsburgh, rattling community members who live on the front lines of fracking in the No. 2 natural-gas-producing state in the country.

Then-Gov. Tom Wolf authorized $3 million in 2019 to study the health effects of natural gas development. And at the end of 2022, the entities conducting the study — the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) and the University of Pittsburgh — were slated to come to the table with concerned residents. They’d been meeting regularly with an external advisory board of which Ketyer and representatives from environmental groups were a part.

But the agency and university both pulled out at the last minute amid pressure from Washington County GOP Sen. Camera Bartolotta — who has advanced anti-regulatory fossil fuel policy in the Capitol as the co-chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Oil and Gas Caucus; received thousands in campaign contributions from the industry; and urged the DOH not to engage with “anti-fossil fuel advocates.”

Industry groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group for the natural gas industry, have long claimed that there is no evidence that fracking harms public health. The coalition has come under fire in the past for funding university studies on the benefits of fracking. When Gov. Wolf initially announced funding for the study, the coalition expressed support, but with a caveat: that the research be conducted “neutrally, fairly and without bias.”

In 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote that “the industry has too often used its relationships with … universities to further a clear science agenda that has resulted in the deception of regulators and the public about the actual impacts of fracking to the environment, public health and economy.” In December, LittleSis reporter Aly Shaw uncovered key relationships between several trustees at the University of Pittsburgh and oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Range Resources, Peoples Gas and Shell Oil.

Digesting the results of the studies, Ketyer told Capital & Main that the feeling he sits with is one of urgency. “Something needs to be done to protect people who are living here,” he said.

That same urgency is shared across environmental circles, where some are calling for stronger regulations or an all-out fracking ban, and others have been left wanting more from the reports. Residents attending an Aug. 15 conference on the results, including parents of children with rare cancers, lined up at a pair of microphones in the aisles of a University of Pittsburgh auditorium.

Several expressed dismay at what they claimed were holes in the research — not taking into account drinking water contamination or radioactivity from fracking waste, and relying upon a limited sample, for instance. Others expressed concern that the studies failed to find a correlation between fracking exposure and leukemia, brain and bone cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, a rare cancer of which 27 cases were identified in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2019. (The incidence rate of this cancer is one in a million people.)

“Future studies will be needed that assess water quality and cover some of the blind spots of this study,” said Tom Pike, environmental policy advocate at Protect Penn-Trafford, an environmental advocacy group in southwestern Pennsylvania. “Many people attended the presentation hoping for answers, because their loved ones are sick. There was a lot of disappointment and anger in the room because what people really wanted to hear from the Pennsylvania Department of Health is that it was going to be taking action.”

Watching from afar, Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, expressed consternation. “Yes, there were many flaws in the design of the study,” she said. “And in spite of that, I was impressed with the positive findings that showed up anyway.”

Year after year, Steingraber has helped compile a compendium of scientific studies on the links between fracking and poor health outcomes, like heart complications, respiratory issues, headaches, nausea and cancers. She was among the initial voices that warned of these concerns in New York, where fracking was banned in 2014 — and she can’t help but contrast her state’s action with Pennsylvania’s lack of response.

“There’s nothing that makes fracking safer in Pennsylvania than it is in New York, and they have the same data available to them, and yet fracking continues to move forward,” she said.

“How much damning evidence do governments need to prohibit something that is clearly environmentally harmful and likely killing people?”

This year’s compendium will be the ninth iteration. “There is now more than six times the damning evidence than there was in 2014 when our governor decided to ban fracking here,” Steingraber said.

At least one Pennsylvania grassroots environmental group — the Better Path Coalition — has, in the wake of the studies’ release, called for a statewide fracking ban. Others urge the state to adopt the eight recommendations of a 2020 grand jury report on fracking, including 2,500-foot setbacks of homes from fracking wells, and the end of trade secret status for fracking fluids.

Despite Gov. Josh Shapiro’s resolve in holding polluters to account when he was state attorney general, environmentalists have called into question whether Shapiro will take a hard line on fracking while governor. Meanwhile, the state Legislature has stalled meaningful environmental policy. And while advocating against a bill that would create health and safety setbacks from natural gas development, GOP Senator Eugene Yaw, majority chair his chamber’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, stated that he had not seen any recent studies confirming health consequences from fracking. The day after the studies’ release, he issued a statement “call[ing] into question … their results.”

The Marcellus Shale Coalition was just as quick to deny the DOH/Pitt studies’ credibility. “All of the studies, in fact, failed to adequately consider other critical causational factors that may have affected the findings,” President David Callahan said in a statement the day the results were released. (Researchers, in fact, specified a number of factors they accounted for in these studies to eliminate the likelihood that any correlations they found could be misattributed to fracking, such as family history, age and sex.) Energy in Depth, a blog by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has also downplayed the study results by highlighting associations that the studies did not find.

Some feared industry groups would attempt to discredit the reports, as they have with other research in the past. Ketyer, for his part, says it is time for elected officials to show they’re not listening to these efforts by industry.

“Trust is being lost with the government,” he said. “The government really has to step up now. There’s enough information showing that fracking is harmful. We need some health protective policies. And Gov. Shapiro knows all about that.”

Audrey Carleton is a reporter for Capital & Main, where this story first appeared. Sign up for Capital & Main’s newsletter here.

by Special to the Capital-Star, Pennsylvania Capital-Star August 28, 2023

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By Audrey Carleton