Childhood Leukemia And Oil & Gas Development Strongly Associated, Research Finds

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There’s a strong association between the diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia amongst children and levels of nearby oil and natural gas development, new research from the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz has found.

In other words, children living near areas with high levels of oil and gas wells are much more likely to develop leukemia than those that aren’t — 4.3 times more likely, that is (as compared to those with different types of cancers).

To use the exact phrasing used by the press release (so that there’s no confusion):

“The study shows children and young adults between the ages of 5 and 24 with acute lymphocytic leukemia were 4.3 times more likely to live in the densest area of active oil and gas wells than those with other cancers. The study focused on rural areas and towns in 57 Colorado counties and excluded urban areas of more than 50,000 people.”

(It should probably be noted here that the research found no association between the diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with oil and gas development.)

“Over 378,000 Coloradans and millions of Americans currently live within a mile of at least one oil and gas well, and petroleum development continues to expand into residential areas,” commented lead investigator Dr Lisa McKenzie, an assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. “The findings from our registry-based case control study indicate that young Coloradans diagnosed with one type of childhood leukemia are more likely to live in the densest areas of oil and gas sites. More comprehensive research that can address our study’s limitations is needed to understand and explain these results.”

The press release notes that oil and gas development has expanded rapidly over the last 15 or so years, and that such development generally leads to the release of benzene and other carcinogenic substances into nearby water and air.

Apparently, more than 15 million US residents now live within just 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) of an oil or gas development. In areas of highest development in Colorado, some residents actually live within 1 mile of hundreds of oil and gas wells.

The press release provides more information:

“The report concludes that future research should incorporate information on oil and gas development activities and production levels, as well as levels of specific pollutants of interest like benzene, near homes, schools and day care centers. It recommends such research consider specific ages and residential histories, compare cases to controls without cancer and address other potential confounders and environmental stressors.

“Data for the study was obtained from the Colorado Central Cancer Registry and the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System. The study included 743 young Coloradans aged 0-24 years living in rural Colorado and diagnosed with cancer between 2001 and 2013.

“Researchers used information from the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System to build a geocoded dataset with coordinates of all oil and gas wells in rural Colorado and determined dates for when each well was active.

“Geocoded residential addresses of cancer patients at the time of diagnosis were linked to active well locations in the year of diagnosis and active well locations in each of the 10 years preceding the cancer diagnosis. They then took the inverse of each distance and summed the inverse distances to calculate inverse distance weighted oil and gas well counts within a 16.1 km radius of each participant’s residence at cancer diagnosis for each of the 10 years prior to the date of the cancer diagnosis. The inverse distance weighted well count method gives greater weight to the wells nearer the home. Age, race, gender, income, elevation of residence and year of cancer diagnosis all were considered in the analysis.

The press release notes that the study was limited by the “low occurrence” of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in rural Colorado, and also by a lack of data on the specific ages that study participants were diagnosed with cancer. Additionally, there was a lack of details on the specific activities occurring at relevant oil and gas wells, a lack of data on other possible sources of pollution near the residences of the study participants, and a lack of family history information.

All of that said, the study findings are pretty damning. Though, also completely unsurprising — it’s been known for quite a while that benzene is a carcinogen, as are a great many of the other forms of pollution that generally accompany oil and gas extraction.

The new research is detailed in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Top photo by Bill Branson

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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