Young children living near fracking wells at birth are up to three times more likely to later develop leukemia, a new peer-reviewed study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health finds.
The alarming report, published on Wednesday in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, looked at over 400 cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia out of a sample of about 2,500 Pennsylvania children ages two to seven. The form of leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children, and although the survival rate is high, it frequently leads to other health problems later in life, like cognitive disabilities and heart disease.
Hydraulic fracking is the process by which oil and gas are extracted from deep beneath the Earth’s surface, and the number of wells proliferated in the 2000s in Pennsylvania and across the country as the industry boomed. More than 10,000 fracking wells were drilled in Pennsylvania between 2002 and 2017, and about one-third are located within 2km (a little over a mile) of a residential groundwater well, the study states.
The study found the risk is highest for those living within 2km of a fracking site, and who were exposed in utero. The data accounted for other factors that could influence cancer risk.
“[Fracking] can both use and release chemicals that have been linked to cancer, so the potential for children living near [fracking wells] to be exposed to these chemical carcinogens is a major public health concern,” said Nicole Deziel, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
Though mounting evidence suggests a connection between exposure to fracking pollution and health problems, few studies have examined the connection between exposure and childhood cancer. The Yale study is the largest to examine health impacts on children, and the first to use a novel metric that measures exposure to contaminated drinking water and distance to a well. It fills a significant data gap, the authors say.
The fracking process requires the injection of high amounts of chemical-laden water and sand into the ground, which forces oil and gas into a collection well. Hundreds of chemicals linked to cancer and other health issues may be used in the process, including heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, benzene and radioactive material.
Local ground and surface water is frequently contaminated through spills or releases of fracturing fluids or wastewaters that percolate into groundwater: Pennsylvania recorded about 1,000 spills and 5,000 state environmental violations between 2005 and 2014, the study states.
About half the residents in the predominantly rural study counties use wells to draw from groundwater, and residential wells are not subject to federal regulations or monitoring, leaving it up to the user to ensure they are not drinking contaminated water.
Nearby residents also face exposure to chemicals via air pollution from the fracking process, heavy vehicle traffic and construction.
The study found children’s risk markedly increases the closer they live to a well. While those within two kilometers face the highest risk, levels were elevated as much as 10km from a well.
The data comes amid a debate about how far wells should be set from residences. Two kilometers is about 6,500ft, but Pennsylvania only requires a 500ft setback, while some states’ requirement is as low as 150ft. Colorado, one of the largest fracking producers, several years ago enacted a 2,000ft buffer in most cases. But the study’s authors say that’s not enough.
“Our findings of increased risk of leukemia at distances of 2km or more from [fracking] operations, in conjunction with evidence from numerous other studies, suggest that existing setback distances, which may be as little as 150ft, are insufficiently protective of children’s health,” said Cassie Clark, a study co-author and post-doctoral associate at the Yale Cancer Center.
“We hope that studies like ours are taken into account in the ongoing policy discussion around [fracking well] setback distances.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism