Scientist: 'evidence is tipping' about fracking damage

JOHN FINNERTY | CNHI News ServiceDr. Brian Schwartz, a professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Environmental Health Institute at Geisinger Medical Center, explains how researchers measure the impact of drilling activity on community members.

HARRISBURG — Dr. Brian Schwartz, head of the Environmental Health Institute at Geisinger Medical Center, has researched the links between natural gas drilling activity and health problems, including asthma attacks, depression, sleep disorders and low birth rates in babies born to mothers who lived near fracking activity.

Scwhartz said “the evidence is tipping” in favor of the conclusion that the natural gas industry is having harmful effects in Pennsylvania.

Schwartz’s research, done using Geisinger’s electronic health records, was part of the scientific evidence cited by researchers and environmentalists as they gathered Wednesday before presenting a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf calling for a moratorium on new drilling until the state can more thoroughly examine the health impacts of fracking on the communities around it.

Wolf, in a statement Wednesday afternoon, said his administration has been taking seriously its responsibility to monitor the health impacts of fracking,

“Pennsylvania’s natural gas development is providing economic benefits to the commonwealth. But these benefits should not require a choice between them and public health or safety. It is essential that as we realize economic benefits, we ensure the public is protected, especially our children, and take the necessary steps to aggressively regulate resource development,” he said. “We will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available.”

With states such as Maryland and New York banning fracking, a substantial share of the existing research is focused on Pennsylvania, said Laura Dagley, medical advocacy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The campaign has picked up urgency in the wake of fears that fracking activity in southwestern Pennsylvania is causing a spike in childhood cancers.

An investigation this spring by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette documented at least 46 children in four counties in southwest Pennsylvania who have suffered from rare forms of cancer since 2008 — including at least 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma, a form of bone cancer that only affects between 200 and 250 people across the entire country each year.

The newspaper examined cases in Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

An April review by the state Department of Health focused on Washington County and concluded there was no evidence of a cancer cluster.

Schwartz said that he doesn’t have enough information to judge whether there is credible reason to believe that fracking is to blame for the cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania.

He’s focused on health problems that are more immediately-evident than cancer, which can take years to develop, Schwartz said.

Ned Ketyer, a physician from Washington County, said that the April Department of Health review was “flawed,” noting that the southwestern Pennsylvania cases included an alarming number of cases of children with rare forms of cancer.

“People are worried. People are frightened,” he said. “They have no trust in the people who work in this building (the Capitol), and no trust in the governor. They feel like guinea pigs.”

The state Department of Health tracks the number of childhood cancer cases by county. From 2012 to 2016, the number of cases in Washington County was almost exactly the number projected by the state’s statistical modeling. There were 48 childhood cancer cases and the state’s projection was 48.2. Washington County has a population of just under 235,000 people.

Of the seven counties in Pennsylvania with the most fracking activity, Washington County was the only one that didn’t have more childhood cancer cases than the statistical models projected, according to the Department of Health data. Though in some cases, the difference between the projection and the actual number was modest.

• In Bradford County, a county of almost 75,000 people, there were 21 cases of childhood cancer between 2012 and 2016, while the state had projected there’d be 15.2;

• Butler County, with a population of almost 223,000 people, there were 47 childhood cancer cases between 2012 and 2016, compared to a state projection of 46;

• Greene County, with a population of almost 42,000 people, had 13 childhood cancer cases, even though the state had projected only 8.7 such cases over the period of 2012 and 2016;

• Lycoming County, with 136,000 residents, had 30 childhood cancer cases between 2012 and 2016, while the state’s projections had estimated 28.2;

• Susquehanna County, with 46,000 residents, had 11 childhood cancer cases between 2012 and 2016, while the state had estimated there’d be 9.3;

• And Tioga County, with 49,000 residents, had 18 childhood cancer cases between 2012 and 2016, while the state had estimated there’d be 10.3.

Rather than call for a moratorium on drilling, the governor has pitched a plan to tax drilling and use the proceeds to pay for a wide variety of infrastructure projects, said Sandra Steingraber, a biology professor at Ithaca College. She said a moratorium is in order because the “burden of proof should be on the industry” to prove it’s not harming children and other members of the public, she said.

Health Secretary Rachel Levine said experts in Pennsylvania worked with their counterparts in Colorado in reviewing 20 studies examining any connection between drilling activity and public health. That study concluded only that more study was needed, she said.

“As a pediatrician and a public health advocate, the public can rest assured that if I knew that we were inadequately protecting public health, I would make that case clear to Governor Wolf,” Levine said. “But I believe that we do not have enough information to make such a determination in this case.”

In a statement released earlier this week, David Spiglemyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the trade group for the drilling industry, said that suggesting the industry was causing harm to children was an “affront” to state officials, regulators, and those who work in the industry.

Finnerty is the CNHI state reporter in Pennsylvania.