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State Awards $2.5 Million Contract to Study Health Effects of Fracking

The state Department of Health recently awarded a $2.5 million contract to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School Of Health to conduct two studies on the potential health effects of hydraulic fracturing in this area.

The studies were promised by Gov. Tom Wolf in November 2019 after a group of families of young people diagnosed with the rare childhood cancer 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 in a four-county area of southwestern Pennsylvania but determined it does not.

Families were critical of the earlier study, saying that incomplete data was used. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation determined that that six young people in the Canon-McMillan School 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.

“We have heard the concerns from families and community members impacted by cancer and other health issues in the southwestern part of the state and we are dedicated to taking the proper steps to keep our residents healthy,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, secretary of health.

Industry groups, including the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association previously expressed support for the research.

The first study will be led by Dr. Evelyn Talbott, director of the epidemiology section of Pitt Public Health. It will look at the relationship between fracking and the development of childhood cancers.

“I grew up in Washington County, and one of my first epidemiology investigations at Pitt involved a health study of thyroid cancer among those living near a uranium mill tailings site,” Dr. Talbott said in a press release. “So this investigation holds both personal and professional significance to me. I am committed to community inclusion and openness as we go forward in our endeavor to learn the facts.”

The other study, led by the director of Pitt Public Health’s Center for Occupational Biostatistics and Epidemiology, Dr. Jeanine Buchanich, will aim to replicate earlier studies on acute conditions, such as asthma and birth outcomes, using data from southwestern Pennsylvania.

“As a lifelong resident of southwestern Pennsylvania with much of my research focusing on environmental health in the area, I am personally and professionally committed to a systematic investigation of the health effects of hydraulic fracturing,” said Dr. Buchanich.

The goal is for both studies to be completed within the next two years. Pitt will issue quarterly summaries on the research to keep the public updated, and will work to provide a progress update at the end of the first year. A public meeting will be held to provide the final outcomes of the report.

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