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Opinion | Return of the summer bucket list
Opinion | Return of the summer bucket list
By Delaney Rauscher Adams, Staff Columnist • May 28, 2024
Opinion | Do not arrest peaceful protesters
By Livia LaMarca, Assistant Opinions Editor • May 23, 2024

Pitt studies link unconventional natural gas developments to childhood cancer, asthma attacks

Work+continues+at+a+shale+gas+well+drilling+site+in+St.+Marys%2C+Pa.+on+March+12%2C+2020.
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Work continues at a shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary’s, Pa. on March 12, 2020.

When three recent Pitt studies linked fracking to negative health outcomes, the results did not surprise Lucy Zhang. They described the research as “important,” but said waiting for change to happen is “frustrating.”

“It’s scary how desensitized you become to news like this,” Zhang, co-president of Free the Planet, said. “It does just reiterate the fact that fracking is harmful to human health.”

The three studies, led by Jeanine Buchanich and Evelyn Talbott from Pitt’s School of Public Health, link unconventional natural gas developments (UNGDs) that utilize fracking and other environmental hazards, such as oil and gas waste facilities and compressor stations, to childhood cancer, severe asthma attacks and adverse birth outcomes. This research adds to existing scientific literature that link UNGDs to a multitude of negative health effects.

The studies began in 2021 after Pennsylvania’s Department of Health awarded Pitt $2.5 million to study the effects of UNGDs on health outcomes in eight southwestern Pennsylvania counties. Buchanich led two studies analyzing how UNGDs affect asthma and birth outcomes, and Talbott focused on the relationship between UNGDs and childhood cancer.

Jim Fabisiak, a co-investigator on all three studies, said Pennsylvania residents who lobbied the state government caused funding for research to be distributed, and the concerns they expressed about UNGDs motivated the research.

“There was some belief within the community that there were elevations of certain, relatively rare, childhood cancers that were, in their mind, unexplained in terms of what might be the causes of that,” Fabisiak said.

Talbott’s study concluded that children who lived within one mile of an unconventional well were five to seven times more likely to develop lymphoma, a relatively rare type of cancer, than children who lived more than five miles away from an unconventional well.

According to the study, children within one mile of an unconventional well had a 0.006% to 0.0084% chance of getting lymphoma, whereas the national average is 0.0012%. The study did not find a link between UNGDs and leukemia, bone cancers, brain cancers, or Ewing’s family of tumors.

Buchanich’s study on UNGDs and asthma found that people with asthma had a 4 to 5 times greater chance of having an asthma attack if they lived within 10 miles of an active unconventional well, a distance Fabisiak called “quite surprising.”

“Something was causing lung irritation, causing those asthmatic individuals to experience a severe asthma episode, whether that be calling the doctor and requiring an increase in their medication, or being hospitalized or having to go to an emergency room,” Fabisiak said.

Buchanich’s study on birth outcomes determined that pregnant mothers living within 10 miles of an active unconventional well were more likely to carry a child that is small for its gestational age and give birth to a baby that is one ounce lighter than average. The study also found that living near facilities that accept oil and gas waste and compressor stations — structures that aid in the transport of natural gas — while pregnant caused lower birth weights.

The studies link UNDGs and other environmental hazards to lymphoma, asthma attacks and adverse birth outcomes. However, the studies did not determine why those factors would lead to the discovered health effects, according to Fabisiak.

The topic of fracking is especially contentious amongst Pennsylvanians. A poll conducted in 2022 at Muhlenberg College found that 48% of those polled support the practice, while 44% are opposed to it.

Andrew Bunger, an associate professor of civic and environmental engineering, said hydraulic fracturing works by injecting a fluid mixed with sand at high pressure into a rock mass, creating fractures in the rock that make extracting underground resources easier.

Bunger said a shift away from fracking would have “catastrophic implications,” but added that he’s confident fracking practices will change if scientists can identify the practice’s dangerous elements.

“It seems like there’s some kind of puzzle where these things commonly correlate to some intermediate factor, and I think we’ve got to collaboratively figure out what that is because I think, as a nation and as a species, we are just not ready to turn off oil and gas,” Bunger said. “That is just a total impracticality at this point in our history of the energy portfolio.”

Students in Free the Planet, Pitt’s oldest environmental organization, however, are more critical of fracking as the future of energy. Zhang, a senior studio arts major, said they’re strongly against fracking because of its association with environmental racism and colonialism, and research connecting it to negative health and climate impacts.

“It’s marketed as this new revolutionary technology that will solve America’s energy problems, but it’s really just continuing this horrible history of exploiting communities and the land for quick profit,” Zhang said.

Emily Gagliardi, a junior environmental science major and Free the Planet board member, said the results of the three studies are “terrifying” and added that government officials should take this research “very seriously.”

“Allowing facilities to be built so near to communities, especially vulnerable communities, it’s really concerning,” Gagliardi said.

In April, State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten proposed a bill that would increase the required distance between buildings and unconventional gas wells from 500 feet to 2,500 feet. It is the latest of many attempts to create a buffer between community members and drilling sites.

As of this year, Pennsylvania has 12,571 active unconventional wells that use fracking to extract natural gas as well as oil. These UNGDs are built mostly over the Marcellus Shale, a roughly 95,000 square mile underground formation that is estimated to have 96.5 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Beyond health effects, Charlie Jones, a professor in the geology and environmental science department, said he’s worried about the impact that natural gas emissions have on the atmosphere and the climate.

“It’s still a fossil fuel, and the petroleum industry, as a whole, seems to be doing not a very good job at preventing leaks of methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas,” Jones said.

He said he recognizes the importance of natural gas in our world right now, but emphasized the need to switch to more sustainable options.

“The fracking has postponed that day of economic reckoning, shifting everyone over to something other than natural gas, but it still is a greenhouse gas, and we still need to move away from anything that uses greenhouse gasses as fast as we possibly can,” Jones said.

About the Contributor
Spencer Levering, Senior Staff Writer