On August 15, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) and the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health hosted a public meeting at Pennsylvania Western University – California to release the findings of the Pennsylvania Health and Environment Studies. In 2019, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s administration allocated $3 million to the studies, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of childhood cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state. The studies looked at the prevalence of rare childhood cancers, asthma, and birth outcomes in proximity to shale gas development (fracking) in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
In attendance at the August 15 public meeting were representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the principal investigators on the University of Pittsburgh research team, media outlets, over 100 community members, and a host of virtual attendees.
In the asthma study, researchers determined a strong association between the production phase of shale gas development and asthma exacerbations for those living up to 10 miles away from one or more wells. People in the study radius were four to five times more likely to suffer from asthmatic symptoms and related hospitalizations compared to counterparts who did not live within 10 miles of well operations.
Researchers in the birth outcomes study discovered that babies born to mothers living up to 10 miles away from one or more shale gas wells were one ounce smaller at birth. According to the study researchers, such a birth outcome poses little risk to health, though other studies have shown more definite associations. However, it is notable that these results were seen at all stages of shale gas development, including the production phase and in proximity to facilities accepting oil and gas waste. Additionally, the study found that high levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) from any industrial source were associated with premature birth, indicating further areas of study.
In the cancer study, researchers found that children who lived within one mile of a well had approximately five to seven times the chance of developing lymphoma. The study found no association between proximity to shale gas development and other cancers like childhood leukemia, brain cancer, or rare bone cancers like Ewing sarcoma. Notably, this study was conducted using medical records and involved no direct sample testing of patients or their living environments, indicating that the rates of cancer could be under-reported.
The session concluded with a Q&A period that allowed community members to voice their concerns with the results of the studies, as well as call for more protective action by the DOH, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the research team. The PA Health and Environment research team committed to visiting shale gas operations in Southwestern Pennsylvania to better understand the direct concerns of those living in the area.
EHP will be conducting a deeper analysis of these three separate studies in the coming weeks and will have additional strengths and limitations to report once each study’s methodology and results are more closely examined. In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Health and Environment studies show a clear path forward for policymakers. "These studies confirm what we already know from dozens of other studies and hundreds of in-depth reports," says EHP's executive director, Alison L. Steele. "Shale gas development puts the health of residents at risk. We strongly urge Governor Shapiro, state agencies, and the Pennsylvania legislature to take immediate action to protect people living near shale gas wells, petrochemical plants, and the associated infrastructure."
The study results and summaries can be found here: https://paenv.pitt.edu/results.html