Pennsylvania to fund research into fracking health dangers

Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh.

  • Michael Rubinkam/Associated Press

(Harrisburg) — Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday his administration will spend $3.9 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health effects of the natural gas industry, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of pediatric cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state.

Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008.

Ewing has no known environmental cause, and gas industry officials say there is no evidence linking pediatric cancer to drilling. But the families nevertheless suspect that drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the method that energy companies use to extract natural gas from shale rock, played a role. They have been pressing the Wolf administration for an investigation into any possible link between this extremely rare form of bone cancer and shale gas development — and confronted Wolf himself at the Capitol on Monday.

“I want to thank the families that have shared their heartbreaking stories,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday. “I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases.”

The research, he said, is meant to address “the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers.”

One study will use existing research that linked natural gas activity to medical conditions like asthma and, applying the same methodology, try to replicate those earlier findings in the population in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The other study will focus specifically on rare childhood cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, with researchers looking at whether these young cancer patients were exposed to fracking more often than a control population.

Each study is projected to last three years. The state is seeking to partner with an academic research institution.

“It is essential to better understand the scientific evidence of public health issues related to hydraulic fracturing. These studies will provide us with a more in-depth understanding of this issue than we have been able to do with the resources at our disposal,” Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary, said in a statement.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement it was “committed to working closely with the administration on this research” and would “encourage state officials to neutrally, fairly and without bias evaluate all potential factors” of the cancers.

Carla Marratto, whose brother, Luke Blanock, died of Ewing sarcoma in 2016 at the age of 19, was among those who went to Harrisburg Monday. She said the study is a good first step. 

“There’s obviously something going on–we just want to know what’s going on with specific, unbiased facts,” she said.

Heaven Sensky, an organizer with the Center for Coalfield Justice who’d worked with the family members, said it was a ‘monumental’ decision for the families.  

“We came in with a united goal…and it wasn’t to ban fracking. We want an investigation that looks at the correlation,” she said. She praised the family members who advocated for the study. “They are unbelievably selfless, and they are reliving their deepest trauma over and over for the sake of others and they are nothing short of heroic. And I am confident they’re not going to stop until they feel they’ve gotten a just investigation.”

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