July 11, 2019

Group Asks Governor to Order Investigation into Possible Link Between Childhood Cancers and Gas Drilling

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently received a request from a large group of environmental organization leaders, individuals, and five state representatives asking that he order the state Department of Health to investigate the possibility of a link between childhood cancers in four southwestern counties and shale gas drilling.

The issue came to light early this year after yet another young resident of the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma. An investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette determined that that six young people in the 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. The newspaper found a higher than expected incidence of other childhood cancers as well.

The letter to the governor also asked that the state suspend gas drilling permits in the area until such a study is completed.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an organization representing the gas industry in southwestern Pennsylvania, also sent Wolf a letter asking him to reject the request to shut down gas drilling activities, calling it “ridiculous.”

Thousands of gas wells have been drilled in the area using hydraulic fracturing, and accompanying infrastructure has also been built, including compressor stations, processing plants and pipelines. The letter asking for the investigation references the toxic chemicals used in the drilling and fracking process. The MSC response claims that the group is ignoring existing research that has found no environmental causes for Ewing sarcoma.

The state Department of Health reviewed the possibility of a “cancer cluster” in the Canon-McMillan area following the Post-Gazette’s article, but determined in April that there were “no conclusive findings” of such a cluster. However, the review was based on just three reported cases because the department did not have 2018 numbers and because one other person had since moved out of the district. The review did determine that rates for some radiation-related cancers were “somewhat higher than expected” and pediatric cancer incidence in the area should continue to be closely monitored.

A local legislator then organized a closed-door meeting with health, environmental and government officials to urge that more research be done.

There are other environmental issues in the Canon-McMillan area that officials believe should also be studied to determine if they are linked to the cancers.

A former processing site in Canonsburg produced uranium and radium for U.S. government defense programs from 1911 to 1957. The operations generated radioactive mill tailings on the site, which was remediated by the U.S. Department of Energy in the 1980s. Some of the tailings were consolidated and encapsulated in a clay-lined disposal cell on site and remain in a fenced area that is overseen by the DOE Office of Legacy Management. As part of its monitoring, groundwater testing is done because of elevated levels of uranium. The site sits next to Chartiers Creek, and the DOE wants to ensure there are no adverse impacts on its waters.

Also within the school district is the site of a former chemical plant that is contaminated and needs remediation. The plant manufactured synthetic resins for the foundry industry and compound chemicals for use in the foundry industry. It is owned by the Swiss multinational firm ABB.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project recently set up a public panel discussion and meeting at which calls for further research into possible environmental causes were heard.

The governor issued a response to the request for an investigation that noted the “powerful economic benefits” of the gas industry but also the need to protect the public.

“We will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available,” the letter states.

“Further, my administration’s epidemiologists just completed a years-long and exhaustive review of relevant literature regarding the potential health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. After working with epidemiologists in Colorado, their peer-reviewed paper determined that the results were inconclusive, and suggested that further in-depth research is warranted.” He has asked the Secretary of Health to look for ways to encourage more scientific studies.

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