PA Department of Health meets with families whose children have been impacted by rare cancers

Posted Aug 6, 2021, by Heaven Sensky

photo courtesy of Earthworks

The Pennsylvania Department of Health joined us on a tour of oil and gas development, meeting families whose children have been impacted by rare cancers and other health issues

Since the spring of 2019, CCJ has been working closely with impacted residents and a series of partners in public health to address the prevalence of rare childhood cancers, including Ewing Sarcoma, in our communities. In November of 2019, Governor Tom Wolf committed to funding a comprehensive study to investigate the relationship between childhood cancer and fracking development. CCJ and partners have worked closely with the Department of Health since then, as the study has been turned over to the University of Pittsburgh. After months of advocacy asking that the study look at both fracking development and infrastructure beyond wellheads including waste streams, it is clear now that the study will look at the relationship between pediatric cancers in relation to all oil and gas infrastructure, as well as other negative health impacts among children living near fracking. I will serve as a member of the advisory committee for the study that Pitt will be conducting.

In a further effort to encourage the Department of Health (DOH) to gain a better understanding of the grief and turmoil among parents and people living in close proximity to fracking development, we asked the DOH to visit the region and meet with impacted families. On Tuesday, July 27th, representatives from the Department of Health including Acting Secretary Alison Beam joined us on a mini-bus tour around parts of Washington County to meet with residents whose children’s health has been impacted by fracking development. Many of the families have participated in research conducted by Kristina Marusic of Environmental Health News, which found that children living near well sites and fracking development had biomarkers in their bodies of harmful chemicals “at levels significantly higher than the average American,” some of which have reached points 91 times higher than the average American.

I participated in the tour alongside other impacted residents, and did my best to advocate for our community with the time I had with DOH representatives. I made it a point to discuss the intersections of public health crises in communities whose access to clean air and water has been diminished, including the risk of being more susceptible to deadly Covid-19 infections. I also said that many residents are fearful of their drinking water sources, and that scarcity in our grocery stores has made accessing clean water a difficult challenge. In addition, I was able to highlight the intersections of economic and environmental destruction in relation to the opioid epidemic. Overall, the tour was emotional and heart-wrenching. Impacted parents pleaded with the DOH to think about them as they make decisions moving forward, and to be a voice for us in Harrisburg.

It is always surreal for me, as an impacted resident, to watch others experience the grief of some of our neighbors whose lives have been uprooted by the oil and gas industry. It is uncomfortable to put ourselves up for display, and sometimes even I forget how vastly different our lives are compared to those who hold the power to make decisions about our safety. I want to thank the DOH for being respectful witnesses to our suffering. I am hoping with everything that I am that they will carry with them what they have seen here and that they will do something about it.

If you or a friend would like to learn more about the fracking and childhood health studies being conducted by The University of Pittsburgh, or if you have any questions about our work, you can contact Heaven Sensky at heaven@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org or 724-220-3550 Ext. 103.


  • Heaven Sensky

    Heaven Lee Sensky (she/her) is the Organizing Director with the Center for Coalfield Justice. She primarily serves Washington and Greene Counties on issues of Oil and Gas development and provides support for our organizing team. Heaven has been with CCJ for 4 years, working on a variety of campaigns serving impacted community members including advocacy around the prevalence of rare childhood cancers, the impacts of waste generated and disposed of by the oil and gas industry, and advocating for harm reduction in relation to the opioid epidemic. CCJ is organizing frontline residents through grassroots efforts to advocate for healthy communities with thriving economies. Heaven was born and raised on a small farm in Washington County where her family has resided for 5 generations. She is a first-generation college student and a graduate of American University (Washington, D.C.) with a bachelor’s degree in Communications, Law Studies, Economics, and Government. Before joining team CCJ, Heaven interned in the United States Senate and for the office of Barack and Michelle Obama. She lives with her husband Casey and her dog Olive on her family farm. Contact Heaven at heaven@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org.

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