Shale Gas Development and Childhood Cancer: Should I Worry About My Kids?

On October 7, 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) held a community meeting in Canonsburg, PA, to discuss whether a cluster of rare childhood cancers (called Ewing sarcoma) exists in the Canon-McMillan School District in southwestern Pennsylvania. The event was attended by more than 200 concerned citizens, some of them parents or relatives of children who had died from the disease.

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At the meeting, representatives of the DOH concluded that no such cancer cluster currently exists, but they admitted that the sample size was too small, that the data they used was incomplete, and that further study needs to be done. Most in the audience wanted to know whether environmental factors, such as fracking, may be linked to this and an outbreak of other rare childhood cancers occurring in the region, but that issue wasn’t addressed.

Are My Kids at Risk?

So, the question remains: If you live in an area where shale gas development is ongoing, should you worry about whether your kids might get cancer?

This isn’t such an easy question to answer. So far, there are no scientific studies directly linking environmental pollution and Ewing sarcoma. It’s possible that no such link exists and that the risk of getting this particular cancer lies in other as-yet-unknown factors.

But here’s what we do know:

The rapidly expanding shale gas industry potentially emits 55 chemicals that are either known, probable, or possible cancer-causing agents (carcinogens). In fact, that number is probably much higher. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has so far looked at only 20 percent of the compounds on the list of air and water pollutants associated with fracking to determine whether they are carcinogenic.

We also know that shale gas facilities emit amounts of poisonous compounds that we can detect. These pollutants may enter our bodies through the air we breathe, the water we drink, or the soil we touch. And we know that spills occur and pipelines explode, and that fracking byproducts have been spread as brine on roads and used in pool salts in place of chlorine.

Kids are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental pollution. As Dr. Ned Ketyer, a retired pediatrician, says in The PediaBlog, “Children are not simply little adults. There are a number of ways that children are more vulnerable than adults to environmental health threats and pollution.”

When compared to adults, children:

  • Drink more water and breathe more air by weight
  • Have rapidly developing organs that are more vulnerable to damage
  • Have thinner, more permeable skin and less developed immune systems
  • Exhibit lower levels of chemical-binding proteins to help rid their bodies of toxic materials
  • Spend more time outdoors playing in the grass and dirt where pollution settles
  • Have more years ahead of them to manifest symptoms of disease after exposure

Further, Dr. Ketyer notes that children have an increased risk of exposure to pollution because they rely on adult caregivers to make sure their environment is clean and safe.

Most troubling, we know that – since the beginning of the fracking boom – kids in Southwestern Pennsylvania are getting rare forms of cancer at alarming rates. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has reported that at least six children in the Canon-McMillan school district have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in the last 10 years. Only about 250 cases of Ewing sarcoma are diagnosed each year in the entire U.S.

In the four-county area comprised of Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties, at least 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma alone have been diagnosed, along with many more cases of other cancers, some of those rare, too.

What Can I Do to Protect My Kids?

Given these elevated rates and higher risks, what can you do to protect your kids, especially if you live close to a shale gas facility or other source of environmental pollution? Well, you can:

  1. Make sure your kids get regular medical checkups
  2. If your child shows signs of unusual symptoms or behavior, take them immediately to your physician
  3. Keep a “health diary” that tracks your family’s illnesses and symptoms
  4. Have your well water tested if you suspect it may be contaminated
  5. Monitor the air in your home, and install an air filtration system if you believe you and your family may be at risk of exposure to airborne pollutants
  6. Know where the closest shale gas facilities are located and how they might affect the health of your family
  7. Be aware of the weather and how different conditions can be less safe for outdoor activity
  8. Join the Health Effects Registry to compare your family’s health to others and to equip researchers with data about what your family has been experiencing
  9. Encourage your children’s school or daycare center to monitor air and water quality
  10. Urge your political representatives to take an active role by passing legislation that protects the heath of your family and your neighbors
  11. Demand that Governor Wolf and the government agencies he controls, like the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health, take the appropriate precautions to keep your family safe

Your kids deserve to grow up in an environment that’s as free of health risks as possible. For more information, please check out our Resources on Childhood Cancers in SW PA. Or feel free to contact us by phone at 724-260-5504 or by email at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org.

The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.

Comments

Dennis Smiddle As a retired PA Child Care Licensig Representative, I know there are regulations that state children are to be taken outdoors daily. What are child care providers and parents to do if the air quality is unsafe? Also, if there are any unsafe conditions in the outdoor space, children are to be restricted from these unsafe conditions. Again, how is the PA State department of Welfare going to enforce their own regulations for health and safety? The PA Dept. of Education has similar regulations for health and safety and the schools need to address these issues, instead of being silent. Unconscionable!

Dennis, thank you for your specialized insight into this topic, which raises even more thoughtful questions. We appreciate it.

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