Southwestern Pennsylvania residents renew calls for research on possible health impact of fracking
As calls for better science on the health impact of unconventional natural gas drilling grew last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Health revealed that a new study found a slight increase in the expected number of cases of Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, among girls in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
State epidemiologist Sharon Watkins disclosed the preliminary finding during a town hall meeting in Canonsburg. She was there to explain a previous analysis that concluded that a series of Ewing sarcoma cases in the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, which is in the epicenter of the state’s natural gas boom, failed to constitute a cancer cluster.
Ewing sarcoma, which strikes 200 to 250 children and young adults in the U.S. each year, has no known environmental causes.
But some families believe the drilling boom is behind the devastating illness that has struck at least six families in Washington County and another 12 in southeastern Westmoreland over the past decade.
A spokesman for the state Health Department said it is still finalizing the new four-county report and would not elaborate further.
“We intend to release the report as soon as feasible, but that will likely be at least a month,” department spokesman Nate Wardle said.
While experts say there is limited science on the potential health impacts of such drilling, Washington County residents at the meeting said they fear there may be deadly side effects from the process whereby drillers shoot millions of gallons of water and salts deep into the earth to release natural gas trapped in shale.
They insisted it is no coincidence that they began seeing Ewing sarcoma and other rare childhood cancers a decade ago concurrent with the beginning of the drilling boom.
Janice Blanock of Cecil is among those who question the state’s findings. Her 19-year-old son, Luke, died of Ewing sarcoma in 2016, three years after being diagnosed with the illness.
She said the analysis for Canon-McMillan failed to include three cases of Ewing sarcoma, one that was mislabeled and two more diagnosed in 2018.
“I don’t care what they tell me, it is a cancer cluster. I don’t believe that one bit. The numbers are inaccurate. When you look at the big picture, it’s not just Canon-McMillan. It’s Westmoreland, Greene, Fayette and Washington counties. There have been 67 rare cancers here in the last 10 years, and that’s how long fracking has been going on,” Blanock said.
Watkins said she’d love to have additional information on environmental testing in the area.
Eventually, a Boston-based independent research group hopes to gain a better understanding of such issues with regard to unconventional drilling.
The Health Effects Institute, which has done extensive research on the impacts of air pollution, last month posted information on work it is doing through a newly launched energy research effort. The work is being underwritten by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the oil and gas industry.
Donna Vorhees, director of energy research at the Health Effects Institute, said her staff found limitations when they reviewed existing studies on the potential health exposures and impacts posed by unconventional drilling.
Although unconventional drilling has been around for years, Vorhees said most of the health-related studies to date are observational and lack rigorous methodology.
“Consequently, the results of these studies can be challenging to interpret and often don’t provide scientists with sufficient information to reach a conclusion about causality. This creates an understandable source of frustration for people who seek clear answers,” she said.
The spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group that represents drillers in the region, said his members are committed to health and safety standards.
“Representing tens of thousands of hardworking Pennsylvanians, including many families in Washington County, our industry empathizes with those battling cancer. We fully support and appreciate the work of independent medical experts and public health professionals who share our commitment to promoting science-based analysis of these very serious matters,” coalition president David Spigelmyer said.
The state’s new four-county study followed two studies. The first determined that 12 Ewing sarcoma cases in southeastern Westmoreland County between 2011 and 2018 did not constitute a statistically significant cancer cluster. The second study released in April reached the same conclusion about a series of cases diagnosed in Washington County and the Canon-McMillan School District between 2005 and 2017.
The studies that analyzed state cancer registry reports did not look at family histories or environmental exposures, but focused instead on the number of cases in a given area, versus the number that might be expected.
Alison Cobb, whose 38-year-old husband, David, recently completed treatment for Ewing sarcoma, pointed to the coincidence of his diagnosis about a year and a half after they moved to Canonsburg.
“The day he was diagnosed, we changed our water. He’s the only one that survived,” she said. “You need to include environmental conditions in your studies.”
Cindy Valent said her son, Curtis, who died of Ewing sarcoma in 2011, had the area’s first diagnosis in 2008. Valent has since moved to Beaver County, but she was on hand at the town hall meeting in Canonsburg, carrying a portrait of Curtis. She begged state officials to look deeper at the illnesses afflicting the region.
“I’m just here fighting for the others. Something’s not right here. … It could be that they all drank Gatorade or all kinds of things. But I just can’t see how they can’t see a cluster, especially when they’ve got 12 cases in Westmoreland,” she said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .