Pennsylvania researchers reveal possible links between natural gas industry and health issues

Researchers in Pennsylvania, a state heavily impacted by gas drilling, are poised to release the findings from taxpayer-funded studies that explore potential connections between the natural gas industry and pediatric cancer, asthma, and adverse birth outcomes.

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The four-year, $2.5 million project is nearing completion. It was initiated in response to mounting pressure from families of pediatric cancer patients living near the prolific natural gas reservoir in western Pennsylvania. The study was commissioned by the state’s former governor, Democrat Tom Wolf, in 2019.

Pennsylvania researchers reveal
Pennsylvania researchers reveal

Despite some states tightening regulations around fracking and waste disposal in recent years, researchers maintain that regulatory gaps have resulted in an incomplete understanding of the extent of toxic substances emitted by the industry into the air, injected into the ground, or produced as waste.

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Conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers, the Pennsylvania-funded study aligns with previous major research that has identified elevated rates of cancer, asthma, low birth weights, and other health issues among individuals residing near drilling sites across the nation.

A public meeting on Tuesday evening, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and the state Department of Health, will discuss the study’s findings. The gathering will take place on the campus of the state-owned Pennsylvania Western University.

Edward Ketyer, a retired pediatrician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, who also served on an advisory board for the study, anticipates that the research will corroborate prior findings indicating a heightened health risk for those living in proximity to fracking activities.

Ketyer remarked, “We have ample evidence linking fracking activity to poor health, and the bigger question is why anyone is surprised by this?”

The gas industry has maintained the safety of fracking, and industry groups in Pennsylvania supported the investigation into the pediatric cancer cases initiated by Wolf.

The study’s outcomes are emerging under the administration of the new Governor, Josh Shapiro, also a Democrat. Despite taking office earlier in the year, Shapiro’s administration has yet to release the researchers’ reports.

The advent of high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling has positioned the United States as a global powerhouse in oil and gas production. However, it has also sparked concerns about water and air pollution and health issues in areas like Texas, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.

One notable illustration of gas drilling pollution was the sight of residents in a northern Pennsylvania community igniting their tap water. A state grand jury investigation later revealed that faulty gas wells leaked flammable methane into residential water supplies.

This Pennsylvania-funded study follows other significant research, including a Harvard University study from last year that reported higher death rates in Medicare beneficiaries living downwind of oil and gas wells. Yale University researchers also found increased odds of developing acute lymphocytic leukemia among children in Pennsylvania living near well sites.

Establishing causal links to health problems can be complex. Researchers often grapple with determining exact pollutant exposure levels and accounting for other potential contributing factors. To mitigate these challenges, environmental health researchers aim to gather sufficient data to assess risks and form conclusions.

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