No Known Environmental Causes of Rare Childhood Cancer Form, State Health Experts, Doctors Say

Ewing’s sarcoma expert with UPMC to lead new genetics research into the rare disease form

An analysis of cancer data in Washington County and the Canon-McMillan School District does not show incidence rates of Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, consistently and statistically higher than the rest of the state, top Pennsylvania health officials and a leading pediatric medical expert with UPMC said earlier this week during a community meeting at Canon McMillan High School.

“All childhood cancer rates in Washington County were lower than rest of state. That’s a good finding,” Dr. Watkins said. “There were no consistent elevated rates as a result of radiation-related cancers in Washington County and Canon-McMillan across all three time periods and between genders.”

The leading medical experts, including Dr. Sharon Watkins, Director for the Pa. Bureau of Epidemiology and Dr. Kelly Bailey, a physician who specializes in research and treatment of Ewing’s Sarcoma at UPMC Children’s Hospital, also confirmed there are no known environmental causes of the disease.

Monday evening’s community meeting comes amid several news stories that have brought attention to cases of Ewing’s sarcoma in Washington and Westmoreland Counties. Like everyone, we are profoundly saddened by the impact on these young lives and cannot comprehend the grief of all those personally affected. While some, without facts, evidence, or unbiased research, attempt to blame safe, tightly regulated shale development, our industry – and the countless employees who live and work in southwest Pennsylvania – looks to independent health professionals for guidance, and facts on this very complex and emotional matter.  

During the meeting, Dr. Watkins presented the Department of Health’s findings, initially reported in April, and recently confirmed by CDC, which concluded, “incidence rates for the Ewing’s family of tumors and childhood cancers in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected.”

Key takeaways from the report include:

  • “Studies of children with Ewing’s tumors have not found links to radiation, chemicals or any other environmental exposures. … Incidence rates for the Ewing’s family of tumors and childhood cancers in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District were not consistently and statistically significantly higher than expected.
  • “Overall, there were no conclusive findings indicating that the incidence rates of Ewing’s family of tumors in Washington County and Canon-McMillan School District for female and male populations were consistently and statistically significantly higher than the rest of the state over the time periods reviewed.”

Nothing is popping up from this analysis,” Dr. Watkins said, adding “all childhood cancer rates in Washington County were lower than rest of state. That’s a good finding.”

“The densest areas [of Ewing’s sarcoma] are where you see the population live. It’s not showing in places other than where there are more children….We did not see a clustering of Ewing Sarcoma in the northeastern part of the state that has quite a bit of fracking as well,” Dr. Watkins said.

The Department of Health mapped all cases of Ewing’s sarcoma since 1985, when the state’s cancer registry began. The instances, Dr. Watkins explained, occurred in the state’s population centers – Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with very few cases happening in northeastern Pennsylvania, which includes three of the state’s top five natural gas producing counties.

To further study and understand potential causes of the rare disease, UPMC’s Dr. Bailey will conduct new genetics research, as 10-13% of Ewing’s patients have an existing genetic DNA mutation. The research of patients and families in the area will help better understand whether people are genetically predisposed to the disease.

While Dr. Bailey’s research will review possible genetic causes, both she and Dr. Watkins cautioned the audience that there are no known environmental or lifestyle causes of the disease. When asked if the chemical benzene was a cause, Dr. Bailey was clear: “There’s been a lot of research into benzene and Ewing sarcoma and I have never seen any evidence of benzene causing Ewing’s sarcoma.”

Long-term air monitoring and water quality analysis, which many in the audience called for Monday night, in southwestern and northeastern Pennsylvania have confirmed shale development continues to occur in a safe, responsible manner.

  • 2019 Air Quality Study: Results from a two-year air quality analysis, completed by Gradient, a Boston-based environmental and risk sciences consulting firm, found that unconventional natural gas operations near Ft. Cherry School District in Washington County – the second largest producing county in the Pennsylvania – “do not pose any acute or chronic health concerns” and that the data “showed no air quality impacts of potential health concern.”
  • 2018 Department of Environmental Protection Study: A 2018 Pa. Department of Environmental Protection studyfound limited impacts to the air quality around the sites it examined and little risk of healthy residents getting sick from breathing the air nearby.”
  • Susquehanna River Basin Commissioner Water Monitoring: Continuous water quality and quantity monitoring in the Susquehanna River Basin – which covers a top natural gas producing area – has not shown any changes or impacts related to shale development.

As more research is conducted, we fully support and appreciate the work of independent medical experts and public health professionals who share our commitment to promoting science-based analysis of these very serious matters.