Fracking well. Photo courtesy of the Environmental Health Project.

A new University of Pittsburgh study reveals that children living near hydraulic fracturing wells are at increased risk of developing lymphoma or worsened asthma.

The study, funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, analyzed asthma, childhood cancer and birth outcomes in the counties of Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette, Green, Washington, Westmoreland and Allegheny — excluding Pittsburgh, as there is a lack of drilling in the city.

“We were able to utilize Pennsylvania [Department of Environmental Protection] and other state resources to give us a very detailed analysis of where these wells were, when they were drilled, what stages of development they were in at a given time,” said Jim Fabisiak, one of the study’s co-investigators and associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

The study was released to the public on Tuesday, August 15, at PennWest California’s Natali Student Center.

“So at least for some of the endpoints, we were actually [able] to develop the metric specifically to look at exposure to the individual, specific stages of well development.”

Living near a fracking well leads to “a 4 to 5 times greater chance of having an asthma attack,” according to the study.

Severe asthma exacerbations and asthma-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations were strongly linked to the production phase of fracking — when the gas released by cracked shale is returned to the surface and collected, Fabisiak explained.

The region has been a contentious spot for cancer in the past decade, with local media repeatedly calling attention to a large number of cases of rare cancers, including Ewing sarcoma.

Previous Pennsylvania Department of Health studies have found that cancer rates are “slightly higher” in fracking counties compared to non-fracking counties, and while “the rate of Ewing’s tumors was slightly higher in fracking counties than non-fracking counties, the difference also was not statistically significant.”

A graph showing the number of fracking wells in southwest Pennsylvania from 2005 to 2020. Image courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Although lymphoma, leukemia, brain cancer and malignant bone cancer — including the Ewing’s family of tumors — were all analyzed as part of the study, the report found that There is a moderate association between developing lymphoma and living within one-half of a mile to one mile from a well, the cumulative well count in an area, and the overall fracking activity.

At Tuesday’s event, multiple members of the audience questioned how the study found no link between the radioactive waste produced by fracking and the rare cancers found in the area.

Fabisiak said that in order to get accurate results, researchers would need data on how much radiation patients and controls were exposed to at specific points in the past, which is unobtainable.

“I don’t have a record of that,” Fabisiak said. “If there was a way to think about doing some sort of measure, I would do it.”

In a statement, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said, “We empathize with families facing health issues and protecting everyone’s health and safety is our highest priority. While we are still reviewing the reports commissioned by the prior administration, the asthma methodology is troubling, as it simply reproduces previously flawed studies and relies on faulty metrics rather than actual emissions and exposure data. All of the studies, in fact, failed to adequately consider other critical causational factors that may have affected the findings.”

Raina Ripple, former director of the Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit public health organization that explores the impact of oil and gas development, thanked the researchers for their work but added that the study’s result must open a door rather than close one.

“I can say with safety, based on my work with the Environmental Health Project, that this study is just the tip of the toxic iceberg, and we are only just beginning to understand what is out there,” Ripple said. 

“I see no sign that fracking is stopping or even slowing down. So I think under these conditions, and given this data, that the Department of Health has an imperative need to go the extra mile — to probably go the extra hundred miles — to acknowledge what we’re seeing in these studies and to acknowledge what’s to come.”

Roman wants to hear the stories created in Pittsburgh. When not reporting, he plays difficult video games that make him upset and attempts to make delicious meals out of mismatched leftovers.