The impact of the controversial practice known as fracking on the health of those in the surrounding area has yet to be fully established. Intuitively, using pressurized liquid to blast through rock to drill oil and gas wells seems like it would have to have some long-term effects. However, the practice is new and any health threats have yet to be fully learned. Now, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which is at the epicenter of the fracking boom, is funding a research study after fracking has been linked with several cases of cancer in the state. Although there is not yet a definitive link, there is at least a suspicion that fracking may be dangerous for those in the surrounding areas.
What Is Fracking?
Fracking uses high-pressure water to drill oil and gas wells. The water is meant to break through the rock. The technical name for fracking is hydraulic fracturing. In other words, this is the use of water to break the rock. The water that is used for fracking is enhanced with sand and other chemical additives to make it more effective in breaking through rock. This technique, while around for seven decades, has recently begun to be used more often since much of the country’s energy resources lie trapped deep under rocks.
Pennsylvania is located in the Marcellus Shale. This rock formation, which spans much of the Mid-Atlantic, is rich in natural gas. Fracking is especially prevalent in Western Pennsylvania as well as in the Scranton area. There are nearly 8,000 wells that have been drilled in Pennsylvania.
Possible Tie Between Fracking and Cancer
Recently, there have been several cases of rare bone cancer in Washington County, PA. This cancer, known as Ewing sarcoma impacts mostly children. Since 2008, dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with this disease in the Pittsburgh area. This is concerning given that the overall rate of Ewing sarcoma in the U.S. had been approximately 200 cases per year. The Pittsburgh area is home to almost half of the fracking wells that have been drilled in Pennsylvania as approximately 3,500 wells are located in the vicinity.
The families of the cancer patients suspect that there is a tie between fracking and their children’s cancer as the numbers seem too compelling to be a remote possibility. They have been pressuring the state to take further steps to investigate a possible connection between fracking and cancer.
In early 2019, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on the pattern of cancer in the Pittsburgh area. At the time, the newspaper reported that the state and the Centers for Disease Control were preliminarily investigating the cases of cancer. The federal government had initiated a study of the cases of Ewing sarcoma.
There is no known cause of Ewing sarcoma, but there are several possible culprits in the area that has seen the cases of the disease. Some possibilities are the shale fracking itself or the radioactive drill cuttings from the gas wells. In any event, the chances of such a high occurrence of a rare disease being random seem slim to impossible. However, previous studies in Pennsylvania have concluded that there was no cancer cluster in the area where fracking was occurring. However, these studies did not factor in specific types of cancer such as Ewing sarcoma.
Pennsylvania Government Study
After increasing media reports and pressure from families, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recently announced that it would spend $3.9 million on a study to determine whether there are any health effects from fracking. The specifications of the research study have not yet been announced as the state has not chosen a research institution with which to partner. The Commonwealth’s Department of Health is funding the study out of its budget. The state’s governor, Tom Wolf, has expressed concern and stated that he wishes to learn more about some of the risks of fracking.
Not only will the research study look at any connection between fracking and childhood cancer, but it will also study any possible tie between the practice and birth defects and asthma. The research will be comprehensive in that regard. The results of the research will be useful as fracking occurs nationwide and there is not yet much visibility on the health problems associated with it.
There have been calls not only to further regulate fracking but to ban the practice entirely. However, under the current federal administration, regulations have been loosened to make fracking more conducive. Still, the federal government is not the only regulator that can impact fracking policy in an area.
On the state level, some governments have taken measures to either restrict or ban fracking. New York, Vermont, and Maryland have outlawed fracking in the state. Some states have banned the practice through executive order while others have done it through legislation. Presumably, Pennsylvania may take some action to restrict fracking based on the results of this study although the practice has a wide foothold in the state and there are many vested interests in fracking. Numerous environmental groups have already called on Governor Wolf to ban fracking and this study may provide further those efforts.
There was a recent health conference near Pittsburgh in which a Johns Hopkins researcher presented a case to ban fracking in the state. According to the scientist, there is already ample evidence based on NIH studies that fracking causes various health problems.
There is significant resistance in Pennsylvania to banning or restricting fracking. Billions of dollars of investment have already been spent in building infrastructure and advocates of the practice claim that outlawing fracking will cripple Pennsylvania’s economy and cost thousands of jobs. The state regulator claims that funding cuts for the office have led to more unsafe practices in the industry and the legislature even resists efforts to tax the industry. Therefore, there will likely be large-scale resistance to any attempts to cut back on fracking in Pennsylvania.