Children Living Near Fracking Sites Have an Increased Risk for Leukemia, Study Suggests

Researchers find negative health impacts for young people and newborns related to oil and gas development

A fracking well
An industrial fracking well grandriver / Getty Images

Pennsylvania children born or raised near fracking wells are significantly more likely to develop acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common form of childhood leukemia, according to a recent study.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique that involves pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemicals into underground rocks at a high pressure to increase their oil and gas flow. Doing this with explosives dates back to the Civil War, and the modern practice of using fluids began in the 1940s, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“What our results really indicate is that exposure to unconventional oil and gas development may be an important risk factor for ALL, particularly for those children that are exposed in utero,” Cassandra Clark, lead author of the study and an environmental epidemiologist at the Yale Cancer Center, tells Inside Climate News’ Victoria St. Martin.

In the study, published last week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the researchers looked at 2,500 Pennsylvania children between the ages of two and seven, 405 of whom were diagnosed with ALL between 2009 and 2017. ALL has a high survival rate, but it can lead to other health problems later in life, including cognitive disabilities and heart disease, per the Guardian's Tom Perkins.

Children who lived within one mile and a quarter of a fracking well were twice as likely to develop ALL than others, and babies born to pregnant women who lived near these sites were nearly three times as likely to develop this type of cancer.

Fracking has increased significantly in the 21st century, writes the Guardian. The study reports that 10,000 fracking wells were drilled in Pennsylvania between 2002 and 2017, with about a third located within 1.25 miles of a residential groundwater well. Now, there are roughly 13,000 unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania, according to Inside Climate News.

Environmentalists have criticized fracking, since it can pollute groundwater and release greenhouse gases into the air. Around 1,000 spills, 5,000 state environmental violations and 4,000 resident complaints related to oil and gas were reported between 2005 and 2014, according to the new study. And a 2019 paper in the journal Biogeosciences linked fracking to increased levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the atmosphere.

Relatively few studies have looked for a link between childhood cancer and fracking, according to Environment & Energy NewsAriel Wittenberg. But the practice can use hundreds of chemicals associated with cancer and health problems, including heavy metals, volatile organic compounds and radioactive material, per the Guardian. A 2019 review in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health found research that linked living near fracking sites to preterm births, asthma, migraines, skin disorders and other health problems, reported Environmental Health NewsKristina Marusic at the time.

Joan Casey, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University who did not contribute to the study, tells Inside Climate News that she was not surprised by the findings. She said air and water are both potential pathways that could expose people to carcinogens from fracking wells.

Researchers say they hope this study will influence policymakers. Pennsylvania law only requires that fracking wells be 500 feet from residences, while in other states, that number is as low as 150 feet, per the Guardian. About half the residents in the study use residential wells, which are not federally regulated. Those residents have to make sure on their own that they are not drinking contaminated water, writes the Guardian.

The study “highlights the need to revisit our public health policy protections and some of the distances that exist,” Nicole Deziel, a Yale epidemiologist and one of the study’s authors, tells Inside Climate News. “Some of these public health policies need to be updated with newer information.”