Public informed about fracking health studies, despite Pitt’s absence, DOH

About 100 local residents came to a public forum in Washington County for two state-funded studies on the public health impacts of fracking Wednesday night. The forum was held despite the fact that none of the researchers working on the studies were present.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health pulled out abruptly last week from the event, even though they had been working with local groups for months to organize it, organizers said, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which funded the studies, followed suit.

Several environmental groups still held the event, outlining the parameters of studies and research into fracking and health effects.

The Ministry of Health finances a pair of studies in 2019 after pressure from Western Pennsylvanians who have lost family members to rare cancers.

Among them was Janice Blanock, whose son Luke died in 2016 from Ewing’s sarcoma, the same extremely rare cancer that took life to two other young men from the Canon-McMillan School District. The district is in Washington County, which has the most hydraulically fractured gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Ewing’s sarcoma has no known environmental cause. But even so, the families suspected fracking may have played a role.

Blanock was pleased with the turnout at the meeting, held in an outdoor pavilion at a public park in Canonsburg. But she was disappointed that the two main institutions involved in the study were not there.

“It could have been a lot better if the Department of Health and Pitt kept their word and (were) here.” There was a lot of planning that went into this,” Blannock said. “For them to not show up, to refuse to attend a week before this meeting, it was quite upsetting.”

Statement from Maureen light field, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, said the school decided not to attend because it had no data to share.

“As the date of the meeting approached and plans were confirmed, it became clear that it would be premature to engage in a public forum regarding this study, which recently closed recruitment and entered the data analysis phase,” Lichtveld said.

Heaven Sensky, a community organizer with the Center for Coalfield Justice, said she began working with the study’s researchers in April after they asked her to serve on an outside advisory board. She said the forum is meant to give community members information about the progress of the studies.

“People in the community who lived in these affected locations requested that this study be conducted, and they have not received an update on the study from any of the institutions since 2019,” Senski said. “People wanted to know who was included in the study. Were they looking at well springs or (fracking) waste permits? Like very simple questions that were already publicly available on the survey website.

Fracking links to cancer and other health problems

One of the studies looked at whether fracking had any connection to childhood cancers. Another is to study whether living near fracking increases the risks of asthma and poor birth outcomes.

Laura Dagley, a nurse and medical advocacy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility, one of the forum’s organizers, said there was already a lot of research showing a link between fracking and higher rates of poor birth outcomes, such as low birth weight.

“We already have studies showing the health effects,” Dagley said. “Ninety percent of studies looking at health effects show that there is harm or the potential for harm. So that’s definitely enough information to show that we should be worried, regardless of what this study shows.

The studies were prompted after dozens of children and young adults were diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh where energy companies have drilled more than 4,000 wells since 2008, according to state records. The cases were reported for the first time from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

State study found no cancer groups in Washington County, but this study not included several new cases of Ewing’s sarcoma.

In August, researchers from the Yale School of Public Health found children living near fracking sites in Pennsylvania have a higher risk of a common form of childhood cancer.

The Ministry of Health says about him website that oil and gas “infrastructure can pose a potential hazard to residents living nearby as well as oil and gas workers.”

In a statement about the forum, Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Callahan said the industry is “focused on improving the health and safety of employees, residents and the environment as we produce and transport the energy that makes modern life easier’ and that it is ‘committed to serving as a fact-based source of information throughout the research process’.

Blannock, who for years has appeared at public meetings seeking answers to why her son died, says she doesn’t expect any closure from the results of Pitt’s investigations, which are due at the end of the year.

But she takes comfort in the fact that the groups that organized the event were at least trying to find answers.

“When bad things happen, like (when) we lost our son, you have three choices. You can let that bad thing define you, destroy you, or strengthen you,” she said. “So I find strength in this group of people who help us get to the truth.”

This story was produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the Commonwealth’s energy economy.

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