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KDKA Investigates: Could Fracking Be To Blame For Spike In Childhood Cancer?

CANONSBURG (KDKA) -- At 16, Luke Blanock was a student-athlete in the Canon-McMillan School District who loved to play both baseball and basketball, until one night he woke up writhing in pain.

"In the next two days, we had the diagnosis from Children's Hospital that it was a rare cancer called Ewing sarcoma," said Janice Blanock, his mother.

Within three years Luke would succumb to this very aggressive form of bone cancer, and he was not alone. In the past 10 years, six Canon-Mac students have contracted Ewing sarcoma and three, including Luke, have died.

In a series of reports, the Post-Gazette identified 27 cases of Ewing sarcoma over the same period in Washington, Westmoreland, Fayette and Greene counties, as well as other childhood cancers in the Canon-Mac School District.

Like other parents, Janice Blanock, points to what she believes is the likely cause.

"I'm not trying to make Luke a poster child for banning fracking but something is wrong," she said.

Emotions ran high throughout the four-county area and at a meeting in Canon-McMillan High School's Auditorium.

With fewer than 250 cases of Ewing sarcoma recorded annually in the United States, parents and family members believe they are living in a cancer cluster and the shale gas industry is to blame.

"They're all suffering, why? Because of fracking," said Celeste DiNicola of Canonsburg. "Stop being afraid to say it."

But is fracking the cause?

A panel of public health experts couldn't draw that connection.

Citing a department study, a state Health Department director said that while the number of childhood cancers may seem high in the region, they are not out of line with the rest of the state and do not constitute a cluster.

Against the perception, the Health Department says over the 10-year time period, the number of cancers is not "statistically significant."

A Ewing sarcoma doctor from UPMC indicated that the cancer is primarily genetic in nature and mostly related to family history, but while current research does not show a link to environmental causes, retired pediatrician Ned Ketyer does not find that persuasive.

"The fact that there is no known environmental factor associated with the development of Ewing Sarcoma does not mean there is no environmental factor in the development of Ewing Sarcoma," Ketyer said. "It just hasn't been studied. The cancer is very rare."

If environment is a factor, you could cite several other potential health threats. The region has long hosted the coal industry, industrial farming chemicals, and even an abandoned uranium disposal site.

However, environmental advocates say the spike in these cancers matches the decade-long rise of fracking and shale gas drilling.

"We've been living with that uranium depot for decades, we've been living with these chemicals. There's one thing that's new, there's one thing that's different and that's fracked gas," he said.

But David Spigelmyer of the Marcellus Shale Coalition says there is no pathway, either in the air or the water, linking the shale gas industry to these cancers, but says his industry is as eager as anyone to determine the cause of them.

"Our employees in this industry work and reside in the backyard and their kids go to the Canon-Macmillan School District," he said. "We want to make sure we produce gas in a safe and environmentally responsible fashion."

KDKA's own investigation showed there's a high number of shale gas wells and related processing facilities that coincide with the general areas in which the cancers have flourished.

Photo Credit: KDKA/PA Department of Health
Photo Credit: KDKA/PA Department of Health

The shale gas industry counters saying there are few childhood cancers reported in the northeastern part of the state, where drilling is just as active, and like our region is being done outside but near major population areas.

The industry says it has spent the past 10 years improving procedures and mitigating impacts.

"Last year 780 wells were drilled in Pennsylvania," Spigelmyer said. "More than 19,000 inspections. There's no other industry in the Commonwealth that's under the kind of scrutiny of the shale gas industry, and we've invited that."

But the debate rages on.

Even environmental advocates concede they can't establish a link between the shale gas industry and these cancers.

KETYER: "But there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that shows that the risk is increased to people who are living and working near this industry."

SPIGELMYER: On circumstantial evidence? I don't think we operate that way. We base everything on facts and not folks who had an agenda since this industry began to shut it down.

After a few years of depressed natural gas prices, the shale gas industry is ramping up again and will soon feed new pipelines as well as the multi-billion dollar cracker plant in Beaver County.

Still, some are calling for a moratorium and for the drilling to stop until a fracking and cancer study is conducted.

"I'm not a scientist, I'm not a doctor, I'm a mom and something is wrong," said Janice Blanock. "If we continue down this path, ignoring it, and more of this happens,shame on us."

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