Cindy Valent’s son Curtis used to tell her his cancer diagnosis was bad luck.
“Curt would say, ‘Stuff happens, Mom,’” she said.
She said she used to agree with her son, who died in 2011 at 23. He’d been diagnosed with a rare cancer, Ewing sarcoma, in 2008. But later that year, Kyle Deliere, who was also in his 20s and lived half a mile away in Cecil Township, got the same diagnosis. In 2013, so was Luke Blanock, a teenager who lived less than a quarter mile from the Valents’ home.
Valent, who now resides in Beaver County, was one of the citizens who spoke Tuesday during a community meeting about the frequent cases of Ewing sarcoma and other types of cancer being diagnosed in children and teenagers in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The more than two-hour meeting – which some 200 people attended – was organized by Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project and held at Bella Sera in Cecil Township.
Cecil is part of Canon-McMillan School District. Since 2008, at least half a dozen children and teens in the district schools have contracted Ewing sarcoma, which is diagnosed in just 200 to 250 children a year nationwide. Reporting by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in recent months has revealed dozens of other cases of cancer in youths living in an area that overlaps with oil and gas wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale within the last 15 years.
Public health professionals agreed they couldn’t blame the cases on fracking or any other single environmental cause, but did call for more research into the high number of cases that have appeared in recent years.
“You have concerns about shale gas drilling that clearly need to be looked at,” said Dr. Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, who moderated the panel discussion. “There should immediately be a study ... looking at other shale gas areas in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country, to see if there’s an increase also in Ewing sarcoma.”
Amid public fears over what appear to be frequent cases of diagnoses in children and teenagers in Canon-McMillan and in other parts of Washington County, the state Department of Health determined in a report published in April that the cases of Ewing sarcoma and other cancers in the county didn’t amount to a cluster. Health officials did acknowledge higher than expected rates for some radiation-related cancers, but said those elevated rates weren’t consistent across the three periods since 1985 that they examined.
The study left out three of the Ewing sarcoma cases diagnosed since 2008 in Canon-McMillan.
Those findings did nothing to allay residents’ fears.
Sarah Rankin, an oncology certified nurse who works with EHP, said research into bone tumors, including ones of the Ewing sarcoma variety, are likely “multi-factorial.”
Among the “exposures” found to correlate with those tumors was radium-226, which occurs naturally underground in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The now-closed Vitro Manufacturing site in Canonsburg extracted and processed radium and uranium for much of the 20th century. More recently, radium has come to the surface because of fracking.
“Both drill cuttings and flowback water bring to the surface naturally occurring but very toxic elements, including radium-226, but also strontium and barium. These elements are structurally very similar to calcium and tend to accumulate in bone.”
According to one study, radium is just one of 55 unique compounds used or emitted by the process of shale gas development that are classified as known, possible or probable carcinogens ...,” Rankin said.
Also among the panelists was Janice Blanock, Luke’s mother, who described her son’s nearly three-year fight with Ewing sarcoma that ended in 2016, months after he graduated from Canon-McMillan High School.
“No parent should ever have to watch their child suffer and die,” she said. “We are now in a group that nobody wants to be in. Sadly, our story is similar to many families’ in our community.”
In response to an inquiry about the meeting, the Marcellus Shale Coalition issued the following response:
“As an industry deeply committed to protecting the health, safety and environment of our communities, we support fact-based and objective scientific research. The body of scientific evidence is clear: natural gas is a winner for our environment that’s delivering cleaner, healthier air and lifting up economies across Pennsylvania.”