Risk and exposure in the gas lands
There are high numbers of childhood cancers — some of them rare — in mostly rural areas of southwestern Pennsylvania, and no one knows why.
Most notably, the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County has seen six rare Ewing sarcoma cases in a decade, including two diagnosed in 2018; only 250 cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. And 10 other students and preschoolers currently living in the district have other types of cancers.
In addition, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has confirmed seven young cancer patients in recent years in and near the Fort Cherry School District, a smaller, rural school district next to Canon-McMillan. And over the past decade, as many as 12 students living in Bethlehem-Center School District in southern Washington County have had cancer.
Farther south, in Greene County, three students who lived in the West Greene School District have died from rare cancers since 2015; five students living in the Jefferson-Morgan School District have had cancer; and in the Carmichaels School District, there is a student with Ewing sarcoma and one with leukemia. A child with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a more aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lives in the Southeastern Greene School District, where 600 students are enrolled.
There are multiple childhood cancers in other school districts in Washington and Greene counties, and cases have been reported throughout Fayette County. The Post-Gazette analysis did not include cases of childhood cancer in Allegheny County.
About this project
Pollution science is clear even if the skies are not. For every ton of airborne pollution, there’s a well-defined impact on human health, and more specifically, mortality.
In 2010, the Post-Gazette published its own epidemiological study of pollution’s impacts that showed 14 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania had 14,636 excess deaths from 2000 through 2008, when compared with the national average. Many of those additional deaths showed up in municipalities downwind from pollution-spewing, coal-based power, coke and steel plants.
As part of the Post-Gazette’s effort to update the 2010 “Mapping Mortality” project, Nicholas Muller, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University, was asked to study current air pollution and related mortality, and that review predictably — given the closure of many coal-fired power plants — shows pollution-related deaths in decline.
However, the Muller study also shows that deaths from locally generated pollution were in decline from 2008 until 2011, but then increased by about 100 deaths from 2011 to 2014. He said this reflects increases in locally emitted pollution — most likely from increases in local economic activity and the shale gas industry.
U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, one-third of the Pittsburgh-based steelmaker’s Mon Valley Works, continues to have an outsized impact on regional air quality, and awareness of that has heightened following the massive Christmas Eve 2018 fire that destroyed the facility’s coke oven gas desulfurization unit and led to repeated exceedances of federal air pollution standards.
And coal still accounts for most pollution deaths in southwestern Pennsylvania. But what are we being exposed to from fracking?
In addition to the CMU study, “The Human Toll: Exposure and risks in the gas lands” in coming months will look at the health impacts of this growing industry:
It will look at the additional risks to fetuses, infants and children; new research on the dangers of the ultra-fine particulates that are produced by natural gas and diesel fuel; the impact of the tons of radioactive materials being transported and disposed of in municipal landfills; the impact of the topography of southwestern Pennsylvania in pollution emissions; potential health impacts of the pollution from the Shell cracker plant under construction in Potter, Beaver County; and how shale gas drilling may have a greater impact than coal-burning on climate change.
Many parents, health advocates and public officials point to the proliferation of natural gas wells that have been drilled throughout these mostly rural counties over the last 15 years. Nearly 700 chemicals are used in fracking, which involves extracting oil and gas from rock by blasting chemicals, sand and water into drilled wells. Pollution emissions also occur through a network of pipes and other operations to process the oil or gas.
But so far no studies show a direct link between shale gas development and rare cancers.
“I think there are too many to be random,” said Carrie Simkovic of Jefferson Township, Greene County, founder of the Colby’s Stars Foundation Inc., which helps children and their families who are dealing with cancer. She started the foundation in 2011 after her son Colby was diagnosed in 2010, at age 8, with a rare nongerminomatous germ cell tumor of the brain. He’s now in full remission.
“There are cancers everywhere,” she said. “When you have a little town like ours and have so many cancers, you have to ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
(Dark blue dots indicate well sites)
A. Compressor station, Mt. Pleasant
B. Brigich compressor station, Chartiers
C. ABB Inc. disposal site, Muse-Bishop Road, Muse
E. Tanks, well and impoundment
F. Johnson compressor station, Chartiers
G. Marathon Cryogenics Plant, 800 Western Ave., Chartiers
H. Uranium mill tailings disposal site, North Strabane
I. Compressor station
J. Compressor station
K. Compressor station
L. Compressor station
Ewing sarcoma cases
1. Curtis Valent, 23, Cecil, diagnosed in mid-2008; died Jan. 2, 2011
2. Alyssa Chambers, 28, McDonald, diagnosed in late 2008 and survives
3. Kyle Deliere, 27, Cecil, diagnosed in 2011, died Nov. 15, 2013
4. Luke Blanock, 19, Cecil, diagnosed in Dec. 2013, died Aug. 7, 2016
5. David Cobb, 38, Cecil Township, diagnosed in June 2018 and survives
6. Mitchell Barton, 21, North Strabane, diagnosed Dec. 27 and survives
Since 2011, she said, the foundation has helped more than 20 children in Greene and neighboring counties, adding that she’s aware of other families who have children with cancer that never sought help through her foundation.
Without naming cancer victims, she described types and numbers of cases in multiple school districts. The Post-Gazette confirmed many of those cases through parents, relatives, published obituaries and Facebook postings.
“It’s disgusting how many people are battling cancer in our area,” she said. “If childhood cancers are on the rise, what about adults? The foundation gets numerous phone calls from [people with] new diagnoses. Along with childhood cancer, adult cancers are definitely on the rise. I hope investigations lead to answers on what’s causing this.”
Cancer After Cancer
In November 2016, Nicole Stewart, now 19, then a Fort Cherry High School junior, went to her first Powderpuff Football practice. Having never played before, she was told, “Just run after the girl with the ball.” So she did, eventually colliding with another player and sustaining an injury that made it difficult for her to lift her right arm.
When the arm kept hurting, she saw a doctor. X-rays led to a followup scan because “something wasn’t right.”
At UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on Jan. 26, 2017, she received the diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma. “I didn’t cry right away,” she said.
Four months after that diagnosis, Grace Lipscomb, who went through Fort Cherry Elementary Center but graduated from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Coraopolis, was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkin lymphoma, the same cancer as Ms. Stewart and both in their junior year. Prior to their diagnoses, a young adult who graduated from Fort Cherry but was living nearby in the Burgettstown Area School District was diagnosed with the same cancer.
“Why did this occur? I don’t know,” said Ms. Lipscomb’s mother, Sharon, who lives in Robinson, near McDonald in Washington County. Ms. Lipscomb and Ms. Stewart now are roommates at Clarion University. “I knew there were other older children, prior to Grace and Nicole who had been diagnosed with cancer, and overall it’s very concerning and scary.”
Ms. Lipscomb, 19, is majoring in physics. Her cancer is in remission.
“It was a huge shocker,” she said. “I was scared and didn’t know what to expect and didn’t fully understand it until I went through it.”
Fort Cherry cancer patients also include Catherine Samstag of McDonald, who was diagnosed with a thyroid and lymph-node cancer in March 2016, three months before graduating. Her mother, Christina, confirmed the diagnosis and posted on Facebook the need to move forward and focus on the positives.
“While 85% of people survive with this cancer, you will never again have the quality of life you once had,” she stated. “She has to take medication for the rest of her life to live. She is always tired, clumsy, forgetful. Her hair falls out in clumps. Her skin is dry. She is continually in pain.”
Her thyroid and one lymph node were removed with no recurrence to date. Now 21, she lives at home and works full time in retail.
The cause, Ms. Samstag’s mother said, “has to be something environmental, because there are so many cases.”
“My bigger concern is, here are all these cases with Canon-McMillan and we’re their neighbor. All the fracking is occurring along Route 980 in Canon-McMillan and Fort Cherry Road here. They are fracking in both school districts. That’s what I think is the common denominator.”
One mile east of McDonald, a 19-year-old woman from Sturgeon, a village straddling North and South Fayette, died in March 2018 from brain cancer. She was 17 when diagnosed, her grandmother said.
A GoFundMe account was established in 2015 for a 13-month-old with brain cancer near Midway in the Burgettstown Area School District, near the Fort Cherry border. Her father confirmed the child’s brain cancer but asked that her name not be published.
The tumor was an aggressive anaplastic ependymoma, which was fully removed during surgery. The child, now 5, is doing well, the website says: “She’s back to her normal habits like melting hearts with that nose-squinting smile” and pulling her sister’s hair.
Riley Karn was 15 when he was diagnosed in September 2012 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia after experiencing headaches, weight loss and a lack of energy.
The National Cancer Institute says potential causes of that form of leukemia include exposure to X-rays before birth and exposure to radiation. But linking a specific cancer to a specific cause most of the time is impossible.
Now 21, Mr. Karn, a 2016 Fort Cherry graduate, is studying management of information systems at West Virginia University. His mother, Lisa, says she ponders what might have caused his and the other cancer cases in the Fort Cherry district.
“Now we know about the others,” Ms. Karn said. “I would hope the school will do its due diligence to research these things. I don’t know how much control they have over environmental issues or if it is impacting kids.”
One of many
Word-of-mouth concerns in Fort Cherry arose due to the numerous student cancers in Canon-McMillan School District, where elected officials, UPMC and state Department of Environmental Protection officials met April 24 with families struggling with Ewing sarcoma and other cancers.
After that meeting, state Rep. Tim O’Neal, R-South Strabane, said he would seek state and federal funding to search for a cause of rare cancers. In addition to the six cases of Ewing sarcoma, Canon-McMillan currently has two students with osteosarcoma (bone) and one each with liver cancer, Wilms tumor (kidney), liposarcoma (joint tissue), and leukemia. There are also three unrelated toddlers living in the district with leukemia, rhabdomyosarcoma (muscle) and neuroblastoma (nerve cells).
That total doesn’t include the Canonsburg Middle School student who died in February from astrocytoma, a brain and spinal cancer. Nor does it include Garrett Woznichak, a 21-year-old Canon-McMillan graduate and North Strabane resident now attending the University of Pittsburgh, who was diagnosed in early January with the same acute lymphoblastic leukemia that Riley Karn has.
The MPLX-Marathon cryogenics plant, one of the state’s largest, sits on a hilltop due west in neighboring Chartiers and is surrounded and flanked by gas compressor stations, all of them generating volatile organic compounds, methane and other pollutants.
As with wells in the Fort Cherry School District, heavy diesel truck traffic occurs daily, with the area also featuring storage impoundments for radioactive, carcinogenic and toxic fracking fluids.
Other potential pollution sources in Canon-McMillan include the U.S. Department of Energy uranium mill tailings disposal site near the high school. But annual testing shows radiation levels unchanged at or below naturally occurring or “background” levels, according to an online DOE summary of results (see the 1991 The Pittsburgh Press story about the history and cleanup of this site).
Others raise fears over the former ABB Inc. hazardous chemical site in Cecil Township near the village of Muse.
DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said most of the waste — multiple drums and an underground storage tank — was removed in the 1980s and 1990s, with Cecil Township to take ownership and shoulder the “investigation and remediation” required to meet state standards. Groundwater exceeds standards but no known private well water users are nearby: “The DEP is not aware of any immediate health risk to site users or trespassers from soil or groundwater,” she said.
Is pollution the cause?
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an advocacy group for the fracking industry, says studies contending a cancer risk from oil and gas drilling are flawed. But that also applies to studies finding no cancer risk, including a controversial DEP report and an equally controversial 2013 study funded through the American Natural Gas Alliance, a coalition of 21 natural gas exploration and production companies.
“Our hearts break for anyone battling cancer, especially young kids,” said coalition President David Spigelmyer. “Given our industry’s deep commitment to protecting the health, safety and environment of our communities, and our strong support for fact- and science-based research, we are disturbed that some continue to make inflammatory suggestions that fly in the face of the opinions held by respected and unbiased medical experts.”
The industry operates under the so-called Halliburton Loophole — a 2005 exemption from segments of major environmental laws including clean air and water regulations. A provision in the 2005 energy bill, inserted by the Energy Task Force led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, exempted fracking from the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Academic studies have shown low birth weights, preterm births and birth defects linked with fracking and other pollution. Additional academic studies have found asthma and impacts on the neurological development and function of children, among other health problems, for those living close to well pads and shale-gas facilities.
New York has a moratorium on shale-gas development, while Maryland has a partial moratorium with calls in New Jersey and Delaware to ban fracking in the Delaware River Basin to protect water quality.
Research on childhood cancer is just getting underway, and so far no studies have shown a direct link between shale-gas development and rare cancers.
“This is a very open question — whether unconventional natural gas development can lead to increased risks of cancers. Of about 20 health studies published to date, only two have addressed childhood cancer,” said Nicole Deziel, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist who led a 2017 study about chemicals used in fracking. Those two major studies included the 2013 Fryzek study that found no cancer risk while a 2017 Colorado study did find elevated numbers of childhood leukemia, a more common childhood cancer, in areas where drilling and fracking have occurred.
That small study done by the Colorado School of Public Health, that state’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, and the University of Colorado showed that people up to age 24 with acute lymphocytic leukemia “were more likely to live” closer to wells as compared to a control group in areas where fracking had not occurred. Cancer cases in that study were 4.3 times higher than the control group with a general increase in risk across age groups.
No such association occurred for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, or for children with cancer up to 4 years of age. Nor did the study show a link between cancer and the concentration of wells.
Ms. Deziel’s Yale study found 55 chemicals used in fracking fluids and wastewater that are known to cause cancer, with 20 of them already shown to cause such cancers as leukemia and lymphoma. Many other chemicals used in fracking have yet to be analyzed to determine whether they may cause other types of cancer.
“This is a hugely important issue with a big question mark that needs more studies,” she said. “It is not without plausibility because oil and gas sites have the potential to release carcinogens into the air and water. But we need more data to understand whether people living near these sites have an increased risk of exposure to environmental carcinogens or increased health risks.”
In the pollution vortex
At the time of her diagnosis, Ms. Stewart lived with her family in Robinson, Washington County — a valley more than a mile from the Fort Cherry school campus. But up to ninth grade she’d lived in a house just below the hilltop campus that’s encircled by three drilled and fracked Marcellus Shale gas wells.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, documented in a 2017 report that pipeline-gas emissions dramatically were affecting air quality at two homes along Fort Cherry Road, directly south of where Ms. Stewart and her family were living.
According to the registry report, high concentrations of methane and benzene, the latter of which the federal Environmental Protection Agency identifies as “a known human carcinogen for all routes of exposure,” were vented into the air from a pipeline “pigging station.” Such stations are spaced throughout the pipeline system to launch “pigs” — devices that inspect, clean and maintain the interior of the lines.
The report said the venting posed a “potential for community exposures to emissions.” It found that the two families were living in a “threat zone” from methane and benzene exposure, leading to “mitigation action” to reduce their health-based exposure limits from the pipe-gas venting.
Close to where Ms. Stewart lived at the time, radioactive fracking fluids also were stored inside roll-off containers bearing radiation warning stickers on the Cowden well pad. The containers remained there for three months, after which the waste with the highest radioactivity was transported to Utah for disposal.
Radioactive waste also was stored at the Malinky well pad, in nearby Smith, less than two miles from the Fort Cherry campus, based on a 2014 Post-Gazette story that cited DEP and other sources.
Anita Steigerwald, 68, said her home — 500 feet from the pigging station and within 1,000 feet of the Cowden well pad — was one of the two included in the disease registry report. Having never received the report, she said the other family informed her about their combined exposure to benzene levels and methane.
She also said she received a May 2, 2014, letter from Range Resources, a natural gas company that drilled in her area, stating that material screened from the nearby Carter Impoundment, next to the Cowden well pad, showed “low but above background levels” of radiation.
Five years ago, she said, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in her lungs, which causes inflammatory cells to form. The inflammation likely is caused by “infectious agents, chemicals, dust and a potential abnormal reaction to the body’s own proteins,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Members of the other family mentioned in the registry report declined to comment because they are involved in litigation with drilling operations.
Airborne particulate pollution emitted from at least one of the well pads was reaching the Fort Cherry campus, according to an analysis conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Center, a nonprofit public health organization that assists and supports residents concerned about health impacts from fracking.
Adding to the air pollution are diesel powered tri-axle trucks that travel in caravans near the Fort Cherry campus, making up to a total of 5,000 round trips per well — typically over three to six months — to provide water, chemicals, sand, and supplies, for well fracking and then to remove fracking waste.
While undergoing chemotherapy, Ms. Stewart lost her waist-length hair but she said she dealt with the trauma with humor, including cancer jokes about herself. Her lymphoma is in remission, and she boasts that she missed only one day of school despite doctors’ appointments, surgery and rounds of chemotherapy. Currently, she’s a majorette at Clarion but there is a sadness to her smile.
“I expect it to come back, so if it does come I’ll be ready for it,” she said, despite the American Cancer Society’s report of an 87% survival rate beyond five years. “If you don’t have the right mindset, then you’re screwed.”