Are Cancer Rates Elevated Near Texas Fracking Sites?
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.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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