Children living near fracking sites at birth more likely to develop leukemia: study

Children who live near fracking sites at birth in Pennsylvania are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia in early childhood than those who do not live near such sites, a new study shows.

A study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examined the link between cancer development and proximity to this type of unconventional oil and gas development — also known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

According to the authors, scientists have already informed residents of the potential dangers of fracking, such as air pollution from vehicle emissions and construction, as well as water pollution from the drilling process or wastewater spills.

In addition, hundreds of chemicals — some with known or suspected cancer links — were used in the process of injecting water produced during fracking, they added.

However, data on the association between fracking and childhood cancer among observers remain scarce.

“Unconventional oil and gas development can both use and release chemicals linked to cancer,” said senior author Nicole Deziel, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.

As a result, Deziel continued, the exposure of children living near such sites “to these chemical carcinogens is a serious public health problem.”

Desiel and his team conducted a registry-based survey—an observational study of 405 children ages 2 to 7 in Pennsylvania who were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia between 2009 and 2017, according to the study.

The survey also included 2,080 birth-matched control subjects.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of childhood leukemia. Although long-term survival rates are high, patients may experience other health problems, developmental difficulties and psychological problems, researchers say.

The authors examined the association between in utero exposure and diagnosis of childhood leukemia in two different exposure windows: the early pregnancy window up to three months a year before diagnosis, and the “perinatal window” before delivery.

Finally, they found that children with at least one fracking well within 1.24 miles of their place of birth during the first window were 1.98 times more likely to develop ALL compared to children without such wells.

Meanwhile, children with at least one fracking well within 2 kilometers of their birthplace during the perinatal window were 2.8 times more likely to develop ALL than their peers without wells nearby.

These findings suggest that exposure to fracking sites “may be an important risk factor for ALL, especially children in utero,” said first author Cassandra Clark, a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale Cancer Center.

Clark and her colleagues also found that drinking water plays an important role in children’s exposure to oil and gas-related chemicals.

The researchers hope their findings will help guide public policy in the future, including the required minimum distances between private residences and fracking wells.

According to the authors, setback distances are being debated in the U.S., with some communities calling for the measures to be extended beyond 1,000 feet or as much as 3,281 feet.

In Pennsylvania, where the study took place, the permitted setback distance is 500 feet.

Because fracking operations within 1.24 miles or more of residential areas are associated with increased ALL risk, Clark emphasized that “current distances of at least 150 feet do not adequately protect children’s health.”

“We hope that research like ours will be taken into account in ongoing policy discussions,” he added.

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