Pennsylvania families demand investigation into rare cancers

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The families of young people diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer confronted Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday over what they called his administration’s insufficient response to a health crisis they blame on pollution from the shale gas industry.

Dozens of children and young adults have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma and other forms of cancer in a four-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania where energy companies have drilled more than 3,500 wells since 2008. An investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this year identified six Ewing cases in a single school district.

The cause of Ewing sarcoma is unknown, and there’s been no evidence linking the Pennsylvania cases to drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the method that energy companies use to extract natural gas from shale rock. The American Cancer Society says there are “no known lifestyle-related or environmental causes” of Ewing, a rare bone cancer that’s diagnosed in about 200 children and teens across the U.S. each year.

But the families, joined by anti-drilling activists, demanded that Wolf launch an environmental investigation into the cancers that have devastated their loved ones.

“I want answers, and I want answers now. Give us the truth,” said Carla Marratto Cumming, whose 19-year-old brother, Luke Blanock, died of Ewing sarcoma in 2016. “What’s going on is killing our families, and it’s not OK.”

The region’s lawmakers recently secured a $100,000 state grant for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to perform genetic testing of Ewing patients, but the families said it’s not enough. They gave Wolf an earful when he met with them in the hallway outside his office at the Capitol on Monday.

Luke Blanock’s mother, Janice, invited Wolf to go on a tour of fracking sites “to see exactly how fracking is wreaking havoc on our kids, families, our homes, everything.” Breaking down, she continued: “You have to see it in person. You can’t even understand what we’ve gone through.”

Wolf promised to make the childhood cancers a priority and said his health department is looking into the possibility of additional research.

In a statement, his spokesman said the potential research would “explore possible effects of natural resource extraction, especially regarding these rare childhood cancers. It is imperative that we more thoroughly research and advance the science on the health effects of fracking by building upon previous research and investigating the concern that there is a relationship between fracking and childhood cancers.”

A Pennsylvania Department of Health investigation earlier this year did not confirm a cancer cluster in the region, a finding that was met with skepticism by activists who say the agency failed to include some cases in its study.

Gas industry officials, meanwhile, called for an “objective, rigorous and science-based approach” to “these complicated and heartbreaking health matters.”

“While some continue to sensationalize tragedy, there’s absolutely no credible link between natural gas-related activities — which are strongly regulated — and instances of rare childhood cancers,” said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Michael is a Pennsylvania-based general assignment reporter.