As health officials move forward with the important task of investigating cases of childhood cancer in a Pennsylvania county, environmental activists continue with baseless claims that natural gas development is to blame, despite a strong rebuttal  in a Pennsylvania Department of Public Health study.

Leading these activists is the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), a group with a reputation of using debunked research, as previously covered by Energy In Depth.

The latest attempt to “give natural gas a black eye” – PSR’s stated goal, according to its website – is to link fracking with Ewing sarcoma and other cancers in the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, outside of Pittsburgh. At a press conference promoting their accusations, one member of the group falsely proclaimed, “There is now abundant scientific evidence showing that shale gas development (‘fracking’) harms the health of people.”

But what “abundant scientific evidence” is he talking about?

It’s certainly not in the state health study, which reviewed cases of Ewing sarcoma and other cancers during two time periods before fracking began in the region and one since, concluding:

“Incidence rates … were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected in all three time periods analyzed.”

Overall childhood cancer rates are actually falling in the district

The study specifically looked at the Canon-McMillian School District for Ewing Family of Tumors (EFOT) cases in children and young adults and then in the entirety of Washington County. In the school district, the study found:

“There were no EFOT cases reported during the first two time periods. There were three cases reported during the 2005- 2017 time period; incidence rates based on these small number of cases were considered unstable and were not statistically significantly different from the rest of the state.” (emphasis added)

In the county:

“There were more EFOT incident cases in the recent period of time than in earlier time periods, but EFOT incidence rates for both males and females were lower than the rest of the state for all three time periods and were not statistically significant.”

The study also looked at broader childhood cancer incidences, finding in the school district:

“Both female and male childhood cancer incidence rates were not statistically significantly different from the rest of the state during any of the three time periods. Childhood cancer incidence rates in the school district decreased during the last two time periods.”

And countywide:

“The female childhood cancer incidence rate was 34 percent, higher than the rest of the state in the 1985-1994 time period; however, this rate decreased during the 1995-2004 and 2005-2017 time periods and was not statistically significantly different from the rest of the state in the two later time periods. The male and combined childhood cancer incidence rates were not statistically significantly different from the rest of the state during any of the three time periods.”

It’s important to note that the 2005-2017 time period covers when fracking began and rapidly increased in Washington County – a top natural gas producing county in the state – and nearby regions. That is the period when cancer incidences actually declined.

Finally, the study stated that there were “no conclusive findings” to link fracking and cancer rates.

“Based on the data we currently have, when compared to incidence rates for the rest of the Pennsylvania population, male and female incidence rates for the Ewing’s family of tumors and childhood cancers in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected in all three time periods analyzed.

“Overall, there were no conclusive findings indicating that the incidence rates of Ewing’s family of tumors in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District for female and male populations were consistently and statistically significantly higher than the rest of the state over the time periods reviewed.”

In a meeting with local residents, Dr. Sharon Watkins, director for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Epidemiology, gave additional context to cancer rates in the region:

“Nothing is popping up from this analysis. All childhood cancer rates in Washington County were lower than rest of state. That’s a good finding.”

And a Marcellus Shale Coalition recap of the meeting showed that attempts to link fracking with poor health outcomes just don’t add up:

“The Department of Health mapped all cases of Ewing’s sarcoma since 1985, when the state’s cancer registry began. The instances, Dr. Watkins explained, occurred in the state’s population centers – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with very few cases happening in northeastern Pennsylvania, which includes three of the state’s top five natural gas producing counties.”

Conclusion

As is often the case, however, Keep It In the Ground activists like PSR will not let these facts get in the way of their attempts to frighten people about responsible natural gas and oil development. As evidenced by their news conference in Washington County – along with a recent meeting in nearby Belmont County, Ohio, where activists made more baseless claims about health concerns and fracking – it’s clear these tactics will continue despite actual evidence showing the safety of fracking.