HARRISBURG (KDKA/AP) -- Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf says his administration will spend $3 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health impacts of the natural gas industry.
Wolf is 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.
Ewing has no known environmental cause, but the families 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.
Wolf says the research will address "the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers."
His full statement reads:
"I want to thank the families that have shared their heartbreaking stories. I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases. Ewing Sarcoma is rare and currently has no known environmental cause, but it is imperative that we do all that we can to thoroughly research and advance the science on the health effects of oil and gas extraction.
"Secretary of Health Levine and her team, including the commonwealth's top epidemiological experts, have done diligent work to explore possible avenues to look more closely at available science. To further their efforts, I am directing the Department of Health to undertake two research projects that will help to better understand the possible health effects related to the natural gas industry, in particular as they pertain to confirmed cases of Ewing Sarcoma and other childhood cancers in southwestern Pennsylvania.
"This investment will advance science by building upon previous research and investigating the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers. I believe this is a responsible way for the commonwealth to undertake additional research in this area."
State Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine released this statement:
"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. I want to thank Gov. Wolf for his continued commitment to public health and finding solutions using the best data available."
The news of the funding for the studies comes one day after a KDKA Investigation aired into whether there could be a link between fracking and a spike in childhood cancer.
Emotions are running high throughout the four-county area of Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties, and at a recent 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.
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 Dr. 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," Dr. 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.
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