Pitt awarded $2.5 million to study health effects of fracking

PITTSBURGH — The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health was awarded a $2.5 million contract by the state to conduct two research studies on the potential health effects of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania, the governor’s office announced Tuesday.

“We are pleased to announce that we have chosen a partner to assist us in researching the health effects of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release. “My administration is committed to ensuring that Pennsylvania is a healthy, vibrant place for all who call it home. We look forward to the invaluable research that will be done by the University of Pittsburgh and the information it will provide for the commonwealth.”

In March of 2020, the Department of Health published a four-county report on the number of cases of Ewing family tumors, childhood cancer and total cancer cases in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

“We have heard the concerns from families and community members impacted by cancer and other health issues in the southwestern part of the state, and we are dedicated to taking the proper steps to keep our residents healthy,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in the release. “We are committed to a healthy Pennsylvania for all, and efforts that prevent injury and disease in the state. This essential research project is a testament to that.”

Pitt Public Health will be conducting two observational public health studies focusing on known or suspected health effects of hydraulic fracturing. according to the release.

One study will be led by Dr. Evelyn Talbott, Professor of Epidemiology at Pitt Public Health and director of the Environmental Epidemiology section. She has over 35 years of experience conducting cancer and other health effect studies in southwestern Pennsylvania and abroad. Dr. Talbott will investigate the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and the development of childhood cancers in southwestern Pennsylvania, the release states.

“I grew up in Washington County, and one of my first epidemiology investigations at Pitt involved a health study of thyroid cancer among those living near a uranium mill tailings site,” Dr. Talbott said in the release. “So this investigation holds both personal and professional significance to me. I am committed to community inclusion and openness as we go forward in our endeavor to learn the facts.”

The other study, led by the director of Pitt Public Health’s Center for Occupational Biostatistics and Epidemiology and Research Associate Professor of Biostatistics, Dr. Jeanine Buchanich, will aim to replicate earlier studies on acute conditions, such as asthma and birth outcomes, using data from southwestern Pennsylvania.

“As a lifelong resident of southwestern Pennsylvania with much of my research focusing on environmental health in the area, I am personally and professionally committed to a systematic investigation of the health effects of hydraulic fracturing,” said Dr. Buchanich in the release.

The goal is for both studies to be completed within the next two years.

As part of the contract, Pitt Public Health will be producing public-facing summaries on a quarterly basis to keep the public updated about the research. They also will work to provide a study progress update at the end of the first year. At the conclusion of the project, a public meeting will provide information on the final outcomes of the research.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the state’s leading natural gas trade association, said in a statement that, “the protection of health and safety – for the communities where we’re privileged to operate and for our dedicated workforce – is our industry’s top commitment and focus every single day. We understand these complex and emotional issues have raised important questions and while the Wolf administration has limited the scope of the research, we look forward to continuing to work collaboratively as this work gets underway given the priority we place on our communities.”