Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday his administration will spend $3 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health impacts of the natural gas industry, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of pediatric cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state.
Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh, where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008.
Ewing has no known environmental cause, and gas industry officials say there is no evidence linking pediatric cancer to drilling. But the families nevertheless suspect that drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the method that energy companies use to extract natural gas from shale rock, played a role. They have been pressing the Wolf administration for an investigation into any possible link between this extremely rare form of bone cancer and shale gas development — and confronted Wolf himself at the Capitol on Monday.
“I want to thank the families that have shared their heartbreaking stories,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday. “I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases.”
The research, he said, is meant to address “the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers.”
One study will use existing research that linked natural gas activity to medical conditions like asthma and, applying the same methodology, try to replicate those earlier findings in the population in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The other study will focus specifically on rare childhood cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, with researchers looking at whether these young cancer patients were exposed to fracking more often than a control population.
Each study is projected to last three years. The state is seeking to partner with an academic research institution.
“It is essential to better understand the scientific evidence of public health issues related to hydraulic fracturing. These studies will provide us with a more in-depth understanding of this issue than we have been able to do with the resources at our disposal,” Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary, said in a statement.