Quantcast

Are Cancer Rates Elevated Near Texas Fracking Sites?

Health + Wellness

For the past four years, residents of Flower Mound—a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas—have been concerned about what they see as an unexplained rise in cancer diagnoses in their community. They wonder if pollution from the many new oil and gas operations nearby could be to blame. Unfortunately, the most recent update to the Texas Department of State Health Services’ investigation still fails to adequately evaluate residents’ concerns and they are left with many unanswered questions.

Flower Mound, population 65,000, sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the largest and most heavily drilled onshore reserves of unconventional natural gas in the U.S. with more than 12,000 gas wells. Most of these wells have been horizontally drilled and hydraulically fractured (fracked) to stimulate gas flow since 2004. Residents asked for an investigation into what they thought to be an unusually high number of diagnoses for cancer including leukemia, brain and breast cancer. After initial investigations in 2010 and 2011, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) concluded that although the breast cancer rate among women was elevated, there was no reason for concern and not enough evidence of a cancer cluster. But residents were not convinced, arguing that the cancers in their community included rare types and affected children and young adults—demographic groups in which most cancers are typically rare.

In response to questions about the adequacy of its investigation, the DSHS has now released a new, updated report, which concluded that “female breast cancer was the only type of cancer … where the observed number of cases was higher than expected and the result was statistically significant; this result is consistent with previous findings.”

Yet, it is not only the breast cancer rate that is worrisome: a closer look at the numbers shows that certain types of leukemia and brain and nervous system cancers (reported only for children) also occurred at higher numbers than expected. However, due to the small population size it was not possible to say with very high certainty that they were not due to chance. Leukemia is a type of cancer that has been linked to chemical exposure, in particular the pollutant benzene, which has been detected in air samples at and near oil and gas production sites.

The DSHS simply says that it “plans to continue to monitor cancer incidence in the Flower Mound area.” As a statistician, and a parent, I can say that neither the analysis nor the DSHS’s response go far enough to address the legitimate concerns of Flower Mound residents. A real response would be to conduct a more detailed analysis of the patterns of breast, leukemia and brain and nervous system cancers in the community. The statistician’s toolbox contains a number of robust methods for working with small sample sizes in addition to the Standardized Incidence Ratios (SIR) used by the DSHS, which can be too easily dismissed for lack of statistical significance. Instead, an analysis of the number and location of diagnoses over time could show if there are increasing trends in diagnoses and their spatial patterns (i.e. proximity to pollution sources). The choice of study period is also an important component in the search for potential environmental risk factors. The DSHS based its investigation on the time period 2000-2011. However, gas production in the Barnett Shale started to increase substantially around 2001 and the boom in horizontal drilling and fracking began in 2004. Since gas drilling and fracking is seen by residents as a potential cause for the perceived cancer cluster, the investigation should have compared cancer incidences before and after 2001 and also before and after 2004.

The residents of Flower Mound deserve to have their concerns taken seriously by their state’s health department. A more detailed and rigorous analysis is an important first step and will go a long way towards providing this community with some real, and evidence-based, answers.

You Might Also Like

1,000+ Health Care Professionals Call on President Obama to Halt Fracking

New Study Shows Proximity to Fracking Sites Increases Risk of Birth Defects

Gripping Report and Film Reveal How Fracking Boom Destroys Texans’ Lives

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A roller coaster on the Jersey Shore flooded after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Hurricane_Sandy_New_Jersey_Pier.jpg: Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen / U.S. Air Force / New Jersey National Guard / CC BY 2.0

New Jersey will be the first state in the U.S. to require builders to take the climate crisis into consideration before seeking permission for a project.

Read More
The Director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu speaks on Jan. 26 during a press briefing on studying the 2019-nCoV coronavirus and developing a vaccine to prevent it. Roman Balandin / TASS / Getty Images

Editor's note: The coronavirus that started in Wuhan has sickened more than 4,000 people and killed at least 100 in China as of Jan. 27, 2020. Thailand and Hong Kong each have reported eight confirmed cases, and five people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the illness. People are hoping for a vaccine to slow the spread of the disease.

Read More
Sponsored
Healthline ranks Samoas, seen above, as the 11th healthiest Girl Scout Cookie. brian / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Nancy Schimelpfening

  • Nutrition experts say healthy eating is about making good choices most of the time.
  • Treats like cookies can be eaten in moderation.
  • Information like total calories, saturated fat, and added sugars can be used to compare which foods are relatively healthier.
  • However, it's also important to savor and enjoy what you're eating so you don't feel deprived.

Yes, we know. Cookies aren't considered a "healthy" food by any stretch of the imagination.

Read More
Actress Jane Fonda is arrested during the "Fire Drill Friday" Climate Change Protest on Oct. 25, 2019 in Washington, DC. John Lamparski / Getty Images

When you see an actor in handcuffs, they're usually filming a movie. But when Jane Fonda, Ted Danson, Sally Field, and other celebrities were arrested in Washington, D.C., last fall, the only cameras rolling were from the news media.

Read More
A solitary Dungeness crab sits in the foreground, at low tide on an overcast day. The crabs' shells are dissolving because of ocean acidification on the West Coast. Claudia_Kuenkel / iStock / Getty Images

As the Pacific Ocean becomes more acidic, Dungeness crabs, which live in coastal areas, are seeing their shells eaten away, according to a new study commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Read More