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Study Shows Link Between Natural Gas Drilling and Lymphoma, Asthma

Natural gas drilling in southwestern Pennsylvania was linked to at least one form of childhood cancer, as well as more severe asthma and slightly lower birth weights, according to the results of a three-year-long study by the University of Pittsburgh School Of Public Health. Former Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019 directed the state Department of Health to undertake the research studies, and the department contracted with Pitt to do the work. The results were revealed at a public meeting on Aug. 15 by researchers at DOH officials. A study into potential links between unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) and four forms of childhood cancers found that “children who live within 1 mile of one or more wells had approximately 5 to 7 times the chance of developing lymphoma, a relatively rare type of cancer, compared to children who lived in an area without wells within 5 miles,” a report summary indicates. The eight-county study looked at DOH records on births and state cancer registry and matched 498 children with cancer to a child of the same age, race, and sex without cancer in the same county. However, it did not find an association between UNGD and childhood leukemia, brain cancer, or bone cancers, including extremely rare Ewing Sarcoma, which had been a concern in the Canon-McMillan School District area due to a number of cases there. A previous DOH study had determined that no cancer cluster existed, but questions about the methodology and an investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that found more cases of cancer led to the follow-up studies. The study did find a “moderate risk” of overall childhood cancer for children who lived within a half-mile of a well, and that the risk decreased as the distance increased. Jim Fabisak, the Pitt researcher who presented the results, said the study was not designed to determine if a cancer cluster existed, but to determine if there was an association between UNGD or other environmental factors, including industrial waste, a nearby uranium milling tailings site, or air pollution. The asthma study found a strong link between severe asthma exacerbation, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations in people living within 10 miles of one or more producing natural gas well. “Specifically, people with asthma have a 4 to 5 times greater chance of having an asthma attack if they live near UNGD wells during the production phase,” the summary indicates. The same link was not found when wells were in the preparation, drilling, or hydraulic fracturing phases. The study looked at records of 46,676 patients in the eight-county area who had asthma visits or went to a UPMC hospital and their proximity to UNGD activity. The results of the birth outcomes study determined that babies born to mothers who lived near producing wells, compressor stations, or oil and gas waste facilities during pregnancy were born about 1 ounce smaller. It also found that premature birth was not specifically associated with UNGD but that high levels of particulate matter from air pollution from any source were associated. That study looked at 185,849 births. Some residents and activists in the audience questioned some of the findings and urged researchers to conduct further studies. DOH executive deputy secretary Kristen Rodack said that the department understands it must do a better job and is committed to being more responsive to the community. The DOH will be updating its website to allow people to submit environmental health complaints, improving its cancer tracking, and educating physicians on identifying environmental exposures. The studies also urged additional research to try to further determine what links exist. The study results were met with skepticism by industry groups, including the Marcellus Shale Coalition. “We empathize with families facing health issues and protecting everyone’s health and safety is our highest priority. While we are still reviewing the reports commissioned by the prior administration, the asthma methodology is troubling, as it simply reproduces previously flawed studies and relies on faulty metrics rather than actual emissions and exposure data. 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. “As an industry rooted in science and engineering, we take objective and transparent research seriously. Past research based on actual field monitoring in Pennsylvania and nationwide demonstrates natural gas development is not detrimental to public health. Our industry’s commitment to the health and safety of our workers and the communities where we’re privileged to operate is second to none, as our members continue to responsibly supply clean, reliable domestic natural gas essential to modern life.”

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