HARRISBURG, Pa. — Researchers in heavily drilled Pennsylvania were preparing Tuesday to release findings from taxpayer-financed studies on possible links between the natural gas industry and pediatric cancer, asthma and poor birth outcomes.
The four-year, $2.5 million project is wrapping up after the state’s former governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, in 2019 agreed to commission it under pressure from the families of pediatric cancer patients who live amid the nation’s most prolific natural gas reservoir in western Pennsylvania.
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.
The Pennsylvania-funded study involves University of Pittsburgh researchers and comes on the heels of other major studies that are finding higher rates of cancer, asthma, low birth weights and other afflictions among people who live near drilling fields around the country.
Tuesday evening’s public meeting to discuss the findings will be hosted by University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and the state Department of Health, on the campus of state-owned Pennsylvania Western University.
Edward Ketyer, a retired pediatrician who is president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania and who sat on an advisory board for the study, said he expects that the studies will be consistent with previous research showing that the “closer you live to fracking activity, the increased risk you have a being sick with a variety of illnesses.”
“We’ve got enough evidence that associates, that links, that correlates fracking activity to poor health – and the biggest question is why is anybody surprised about that?” Ketyer said.
The gas industry has maintained that fracking is safe and industry groups in Pennsylvania supported Wolf’s initiative to get to the bottom of the pediatric cancer cases.
The study’s findings are emerging under new Gov. Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat, whose administration has yet to publish or otherwise release the researchers’ reports since taking office earlier this year.
The advent of high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling miles deep in the ground over the past two decades transformed the United States into a worldwide oil and gas superpower.
But it also brought a torrent of complaints about water and air pollution, and diseases and ailments, as it encroached on exurbs and suburbs in states like Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania.
One of the most enduring images of gas drilling pollution was residents in a northern Pennsylvania community lighting their tap water on fire. A state grand jury investigation later found that a company had failed to fix its faulty gas wells, which leaked flammable methane into residential water supplies in surrounding communities.
The Pennsylvania-funded study comes on the heels of other major studies, such as one published last year by Harvard University researchers who said they found evidence of higher death rates in more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries who lived downwind of oil and gas wells in major exploration regions around the U.S.
Yale University researchers last year said they found that children in Pennsylvania living near an oil or gas wellsite had up to two to three times the odds of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia, a common type of cancer in children.
Establishing the cause of health problems is challenging, however. 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.
Because of that, environmental health researchers try to gather enough data to gauge risk and draw conclusions.
“The idea is we’re collecting evidence in some kind of a systematic way and we’re looking at that evidence and judging whether causation is a reasonable interpretation to make,” said David Ozonoff, a retired environmental health professor who chaired the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University.
Another key piece of evidence is to identify an activity that exposes people to a chemical as part of assembling evidence that fits together in narrative, Ozonoff said.
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