Health professionals are calling for a ban on fracking in Pennsylvania after three “bombshell” studies—published despite resistance from fossil fuel interests—linked exposure to the oil and gas extraction process to childhood lymphoma, asthma, and low birth weight.
“I live in Washington County. There is no resident who lives more than 10 miles away from a fracking well or another site of fracking infrastructure,” said Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, who first called on state regulators to investigate fracking’s health risks in 2019.
“We are all at risk. And the risk is significant.”
Living near fracking wells has been linked to health risks by a set of three new studies co-published by the Pennsylvania state government and the University of Pittsburgh. Those hazards include an increased rate of lymphoma among children who live within one mile of a gas well compared to those within a five-mile radius, a correlation between low birth weight and a mother’s proximity to producing wells, and a link to hospitalization for asthma for people living within 10 miles of a well.
A “mountain of previous research” backs the findings, writes Capital & Main, but the asthma revelation was still a “bombshell” for Ketyer, who served as an advisory board member for all three studies.
The findings have led to renewed calls by health and environmental groups in the state to shut down fracking, which is already banned across the border in New York.
“There’s nothing that makes fracking safer in Pennsylvania than it is in New York, and they have the same data available to them, and yet fracking continues to move forward,” said Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York.
“How much damning evidence do governments need to prohibit something that is clearly environmentally harmful and likely killing people?”
Challenges to the studies indicated that fossil fuel interests still hold the power to protect fracking in the state. Ketyer’s study proposal in 2019 had followed an investigative report by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 67 rare cancer patients in four counties. But after three years of meetings and research, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) and the University of Pittsburgh both suddenly pulled out from the study around the end of 2022.
NPR’s StateImpact Pennsylvania reporting project says the sudden withdrawal followed pressure from Washington County Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R), who has advanced anti-regulatory fossil fuel policy as co-chair of the Pennsylvania Senate Oil and Gas Caucus and received thousands in campaign contributions from the industry. Bartolotta has urged the DOH not to engage with “anti-fossil fuel advocates.”
The allegation that the university and DOH bowed to Bartolotta’s directive echoes other complaints about corporate influence over fracking research. The industry maintains there is no evidence to support claims of adverse health and environmental effects, and groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition have funded university studies on the economic benefits of fracking and safety improvements in the process.
“The industry has too often used its relationships with… universities to further a clear science agenda that has resulted in the deception of regulators and the public about the actual impacts of fracking to the environment, public health and economy,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in 2017. That statement was borne out last December, when LittleSis reporter Aly Shaw uncovered key relationships between several trustees at the University of Pittsburgh and oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Range Resources, gas utility Peoples Gas, and Shell Oil.
The news had some residents questioning whether Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) will hold a hard line against fracking.
“Trust is being lost with the government,” said Ketyer. “The government really has to step up now. There’s enough information showing that fracking is harmful. We need some health protective policies. And Gov. Shapiro knows all about that.”