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Pitt School of Public Health, PA Dept of Health abruptly pull out of public meeting they helped convene
At the last minute, the institutions backed out of a public meeting about their own studies on the link between natural gas development and childhood cancer rates. The meeting will still take place, and the health studies are still ongoing.
Washington, PA – Three years ago, a group of parents whose children have been affected by rare cancers, including Ewing sarcoma, asked the PA Department of Health to investigate childhood cancers being diagnosed at disproportionately high rates in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where shale gas drilling, fracking, and infrastructure buildout have occurred.
In 2019, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf ’s administration allocated $3 million on a pair of studies to explore the potential health effects of the natural gas industry, taking action after months of impassioned pleas by the families of childhood cancer patients who live in the most heavily drilled region of the state. Those studies, called the PA Health and Environment Studies, have been underway for two years.
Though study results are not yet available, the Center for Coalfield Justice, Environmental Health Project, Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, and FracTracker Alliance collaborated for months with representatives from the PA Department of Health and researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health to organize a public meeting on October 5 in Canonsburg. Researchers were set to explain the study process to the public and take questions from community members. This meeting was to be the first time since the launch of the studies that parents and community members would have the opportunity to learn from the institutions conducting the studies.
Then suddenly this week, both the University of Pittsburgh and the Department of Health backed out of attending the public meeting.
“It is reasonable for community residents and pediatricians like me to be concerned that fracking may be to blame for the spike in rare childhood cancers and other health impacts in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Ned Ketyer, former member of the External Advisory Board for the studies, and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “Dozens of scientific and medical studies support those concerns. Community members are demanding answers. Unfortunately, the decision by the PA DOH and University of Pittsburgh to withdraw their commitment and not attend the public meeting on October 5 effectively silences those important voices and keeps the community in the dark.”
Today, four members of the studies’ External Advisory Board resigned their positions, citing resistance to accountability and transparency to community members. As described in the invitation from The University of Pittsburgh to join the advisory board, these health and community leaders were asked to participate because of their “role as a trusted member of the potentially impacted community represented within [the] study region” and to “ensure necessary scientific integrity, transparency, and credibility for the studies[.]”
“Parents deserve to hear from these institutions,” said Heaven Sensky, former External Advisory Board Co-Chair and Organizing Director at the Center for Coalfield Justice. “More than 100 community members are already planning to attend the meeting. Participating in this public forum was the bare minimum these agencies and research institutions could do to provide information to grieving parents and concerned community members. But now, they won’t even do that. Yet again, powerful institutions show they are more interested in pleasing their industry donors and political backers than ensuring our children grow up free from preventable disease, and as a result it falls upon our community organizations to fill the gap and answer people’s questions.”
Lois Bower-Bjornson, a resident of Washington County, said, “As a mother living surrounded by fracking with children who have health impacts, this issue is scary and results in an emotional response. The purpose of this meeting was to ensure community members understand the process of the study. Even though trusted institutions are failing to show up for us, I encourage you to still join and hear from your neighbors and community groups to submit your questions. This meeting is about protecting the health of my children and community.”
Even though the University of Pittsburgh and the Department of Health are no longer attending, the meeting will still take place on October 5 at 5:30 PM at the Yoney Pavilion at Canonsburg Town Park. The health studies are ongoing. The meeting will give attendees the opportunity to learn more about the PA Health and Environment Study and other environmental studies that have been conducted in the community. Families can have a discussion about what is known from previous research and how they can use that information to protect their children’s health. Any questions that cannot be answered by participating organizations will be directed to the University of Pittsburgh research team and the PA Department of Health.