Health concerns over fracking remain in state
Fracking is making Pennsylvanians sick.
As we reported last month, researchers say children who lived closer to natural gas wells in heavily drilled Western Pennsylvania were more likely to develop a relatively rare form of cancer, and nearby residents of all ages had an increased chance of severe asthma reactions.
The taxpayer-funded study by the University of Pittsburgh adds to a body of evidence suggesting links between the gas industry and certain health problems.
The advent of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, 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 in nearby areas in Pennsylvania and other states.
In 2010, the HBO documentary “Gasland” detailed the health and environmental dangers from fracking, including an alarming image of a woman in the small town of Dimock — about an hour’s drive north of Scranton — lighting tap water from her faucet on fire because it contained so much methane.
Researchers found what they called significant associations between gas industry activity and two ailments: asthma, and lymphoma in children, who are rarely diagnosed with this type of cancer.
During a public event to discuss the findings shortly after their release, hosted by University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and the state Department of Health, community activists and parents urged department officials and Pitt researchers to do more to protect public health as gas drilling continues to expand.
Raina Rippel, former director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, called the findings the “tip of the toxic iceberg, and we are only just beginning to understand what is out there.”
There is, she warned, “a lot more cancer waiting in the wings.”
In the cancer study, researchers found that children who lived within 1 mile of a well had five to seven times the chance of developing lymphoma compared with children who lived 5 miles or farther from a well. That equates to 60 to 84 lymphoma cases per million children living near wells, versus 12 per million among kids living farther away.
For asthma, the researchers concluded that people with the breathing condition who lived near wells were more likely to have severe reactions while gas was being extracted compared with people who don't live near wells. However, researchers said they found no consistent association for severe reactions during periods when crews were building, drilling and fracking the well.
Edward Ketyer, a retired pediatrician who sat on an advisory board for the study, called the asthma findings a “bombshell.” He said he expected that the studies would be consistent with previous research showing the “closer you live to fracking activity, the increased risk you have of being sick with a variety of illnesses.”
Since the state embraced fracking in 2008, more than 13,000 such wells have been drilled thousands of feet underground.
The gas industry has long claimed fracking is safe but refuse to disclose precisely which toxic chemicals are used in the process.
Despite the health concerns, Pennsylvania lawmakers looked the other way as the gas industry spent more than $60 million on lobbying and campaign contributions over a seven-year stretch. The flow of money kept lawmakers from imposing a severance tax on gas drilling, making Pennsylvania the only state without such a tax.
Four years ago, county commissioners created the infrastructure bank to share the county’s Act 13 distribution — money from fracking fees — with municipalities. The commissioners have leveraged the county’s distribution to provide $53.3 million over those four years to municipalities for infrastructure and park projects.
We know fracking is good for our economy in Western Pennsylvania, but more stringent safeguards are necessary to protect the health and welfare of all of us.