On Oct. 7, the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) held a community meeting to discuss whether a cluster of childhood cancers called Ewing sarcoma was present in the Canon-McMillan School District. The event was attended by more than 200 concerned citizens, some of them parents of affected children. Most wanted to know if shale gas development or other environmental factors might be responsible.

At the meeting, a DOH representative concluded that no such cancer cluster exists, though she did admit that the sample size was too small to be meaningful, that the data the DOH used was incomplete, and that further study needed to be done, presumably led by some unspecified organization or research institution.

As to whether environmental factors may be the key to this particular kind of cancer, that was not discussed. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and anyone with knowledge of how the environment can affect health were noticeably absent. Most in the audience left feeling angry and frustrated, and without answers.

As a public health nurse who serves the affected communities, I can say this about the meeting: The DOH is asking the wrong questions.

Rather than asking whether a statistical cluster of cancers exists, something that’s always very difficult to identify, the DOH should be asking first whether a plausible link can be made between the diagnosed cancers and potential cancer-causing agents.

We know that shale gas development emits into the environment 55 compounds that are either known, probable, or possible carcinogens. We also know that at least 27 children in the four-county area comprised of Fayette, Greene, Washington, and Westmoreland counties have been diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma over the past decade, six of them in the Canon-McMillan school district alone. Only about 250 cases of Ewing sarcoma are diagnosed each year in the entire U.S. Many more children are suffering from other cancers, some of those also rare.

Given this outbreak in cancers and a possible link to environmental causes, the DOH should next ask: What steps can we take to cut off likely pathways of exposure to these carcinogens? How can we make people safer?

Rep. Tim O’Neal said at the meeting, “I believe we should investigate fracking to see what’s going on.” He’s right, but the state can take steps now, before more research begins, to try to safeguard children from sources of pollution and reduce the chance that more will suffer from these rare forms of cancer.

One step the DOH can take immediately is to communicate basic, practical guidance as to how families can protect themselves. This includes, among other steps, paying attention to unusual health symptoms, being aware of local industrial activity, having water tested, and monitoring family members’ outdoor activity.

The meeting saw the culmination of a reality that’s been building for some time: The DOH has lost the trust of the people and communities it has been charged with protecting. It’s time for Gov. Wolf, the DOH, DEP, and Pennsylvania Legislature to step up and lead the fight against childhood cancer.

Sarah Rankin

Public Health Nurse

Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project