New research from the Yale School of Public Health shows that young children who live near fracking wells at birth are up to three times more likely to develop leukemia.
An alarming report published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives looked at more than 400 cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia among nearly 2,500 children ages two to seven in Pennsylvania. Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children, and although survival rates are high, it often leads to other health problems later in life, such as cognitive impairment and heart disease.
Hydraulic fracking is the process of extracting oil and gas from deep underground, and the number of wells increased in the 2000s as the industry boomed in Pennsylvania and across the country. Between 2002 and 2017, more than 10,000 fracking wells were drilled in Pennsylvania, and about a third were located within 2 km (just over a mile) of a residential groundwater well, the study said.
The study found that the risk was highest for those who lived within 2 km of a fracking site and were exposed in utero. The data accounted for other factors that may affect cancer risk.
“[Fracking] may use and release chemicals linked to cancer, so the potential for children living nearby [fracking wells] exposure to these chemical carcinogens is a serious public health problem,” said Nicole Deziel, senior author of the study and associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
Much evidence suggests a link between exposure to fracking contamination and health problems, but few studies have examined the link between exposure and childhood cancer. The Yale study is the largest study to examine children’s health effects and the first to use a new metric that measures exposure to contaminated drinking water and distance to a well. This fills a significant data gap, the authors say.
The fracking process requires pumping large amounts of chemically laced water and sand into the ground, forcing the oil and gas into a well to collect. The process can use hundreds of chemicals linked to cancer and other health issues, including heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, benzene, and radioactive materials.
Local groundwater and surface water are often contaminated by spills or releases of wastewater or wastewater that flow into groundwater: Pennsylvania had nearly 1,000 spills and 5,000 statewide environmental violations from 2005 to 2014, the study found.
About half of the residents of the mostly rural study counties use wells to obtain groundwater, and residential wells are not subject to federal regulations or monitoring, placing the onus on the user to avoid drinking contaminated water.
Nearby residents are also exposed to the chemicals through air pollution from the fracking process, heavy truck traffic and construction.
The study found that children’s risk increased the closer they lived to a well. Up to 10 kilometers from the well, although those within two kilometers were at greatest risk.
The information comes amid a debate over how far the wells should be located from residences. Two miles is about 6,500 feet, but Pennsylvania requires a 500-foot setback, and some states require less than 150 feet. Colorado, one of the largest fracking producers, imposed a buffer of 2,000 feet in most cases several years ago. But the authors of the study say this is not enough.
“Our findings show that a distance of 2 km or more increases the risk of leukemia [fracking] operations, together with evidence from many other studies, show that the current barriers, which can be up to 150 feet, do not adequately protect the health of children, “says Cassie Clark, one of the authors of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at the Yale Cancer Center.
“We hope that studies like ours will be taken into account in the surrounding policy discussions [fracking well] barrier distances”.