Health officials in Pennsylvania have opened an investigation into the health effects of fracking, following what appears to be a cluster of rare cancer cases affecting teens and young adults that may be linked to the natural gas mining operations.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is looking into a potential link between hydraulic fracturing operations in the Washington County area and an unusual number of cases involving Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosed in the same area.
More commonly referred to as “fracking”, hydraulic fracturing involves drilling and fracturing of shale rock to release oil and gas. Fracking results in the injection of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressures, to crack the surrounding rock, thus releasing the natural gas underground and allowing it to flow to the head of the well.
Problems from fracking have previously been linked to negative environmental effects to the surrounding communities, due the impact on drinking water, as well as increased dust and exhaust from drilling rigs, compressors and the transportation of the water, sand and chemicals. The process has also been linked to increased earthquake activity. The extent of the potential harm to humans living close to these fracking sites has yet to be determined.
Concerns in Pennsylvania come from an uptick in recent years of Ewing’s sarcoma. In a typical year, about 250 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with the disease, which affects bones or the surrounding soft tissue. However, in and around Washington County there have been at least 31 cases diagnosed from 2006 through 2017, including two cases in 2018. Since 2008, six cases occurred in one school district, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In April, state investigators initially dismissed the cluster as statistically insignificant. But at the behest of parents in the area, Dr. Rachel Levine, the state’s secretary of health, agreed to move forward with the investigation.
The investigation is expected to cost nearly $4 million over the next three years. The state plans a study involving the potential cancer risks of fracking, as well as a study of other potential health conditions. The investigations were announced in late November after a number of families from the area talked to state legislators.
Oil and gas mining organizations in the state say they support the investigation.
There are more than 1,800 fracking wells in Washington County, all tapping into what is known as the Marcellus Shale.
Fracking Health Problems
Fracking has become an increasing concern to environmentalists, lawmakers, and local communities, as dozens of plaintiffs file lawsuits against the drilling companies for contaminating their local wells and exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered their property values.
A number of fracking lawsuits have been filed in the United States, with one of the most recent verdicts issued in March 2017 by a federal jury in Pennsylvania that awarded two families in excess of $4.2 million in damages over fracking tainting their drinking water. The two families were the last of more than 40 families in the Dimock, Pennsylvania area to resolve lawsuits over fracking problems.
Similar cases have been filed in Texas, which is another popular state for fracking. In 2014 a family was awarded $2.9 million in damages due to the drilling company creating a public nuisance from fracking that caused nearly two dozen wells to become contaminated with toxic chemicals.
Fracking operations also face an increasing number of lawsuits over earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states. Recent research has linked fracking wells to an unprecedented increase in powerful earthquakes across the South and Midwest. U.S. government geologists now say that Oklahoma suffers more earthquakes than California, due entirely to fracking and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.