Fracking may increase the risk of Childhood Leukemia

Todd Energy Mangahewa-D wellsite, 2014 (Photo by Fiona Clark)

A peer-reviewed study published this month in the US revealed that children born near unconventional oil and gas sites were 2 to 3 times more likely to develop leukemia. Unconventional oil and gas development involves directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of wells to stimulate oil and gas flow and production, from previously inaccessible or uneconomical reserves such as “tight” gas in Taranaki.

US EPA 2016 Unconventional natural gas development well pad timeline

In Taranaki, nearly every oil and gas well has been fracked, many multiple times. While there has been a ban of new offshore oil and gas permits since 2018, drilling and fracking onshore in Taranaki have not stopped. If anything, it feels like companies are ramping up efforts while they can, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The health study was based in Pennsylvania. Researchers compared 405 children ages 2 to 7 and diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia between 2009 and 2017, to a control group of 2,080 children without the disease over the same period.

The study showed that children with birth addresses within 2 km of at least one fracked well during the perinatal window (pre-conception to birth) were 2.8 times more likely to develop leukemia than children without fracked wells nearby. The study also found that over the extended window of three months pre-conception to one year prior to diagnosis, children from within 2 km of a fracked well were nearly twice (1.98) more likely to develop leukemia.

Here in Taranaki, we have oil and gas wellsites a few hundred metres from homes and schools. As an example, Greymouth Petroleum’s Kowhai B and C wellsites both have numerous homes within a 2 kilometres radius, and the Tikorangi school and play centre are barely a kilometre away. Each of these wellsites have at least eight wells, most if not all have been fracked. Similarly, the Cheal A and B wellsites between Stratford and Eltham are also surrounded by homes. Cheal A is less than a kilometer from the Ngaere school.

The Pennsylvanian health study was by no means the first. In fact, an increasing number of peer-reviewed studies have been published by 2017, raising concerns about potential ongoing health impacts associated with proximity to unconventional gas development. These include high-risk pregnancy, preterm birth, asthma exacerbations, chronic rhinosinusitis, fatigue, and psychological and stress-related issues. Environmental impacts from water contamination to air pollution along the entire cycle of oil and gas development, from drilling to fracking and waste disposal, have been documented widely.

Critically, the 8th edition of a compendium recently published by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility concluded that:

The risks and harms of fracking for public health, the climate, and environmental justice are real and growing.

The oil and gas industry in New Zealand assured us that compared to shale gas development in the US, fracking into sand reservoirs in Taranaki is much safer, the pressure is lower and the wells are deeper and fewer.  Yet as far as we know, there has not been a peer-reviewed study in Taranaki on the environmental health impacts of fracking, so the precautionary principle applies.

Ten years ago, along with twenty other community groups, we urged the government to ban fracking. We have not succeeded. But we are still here, working in earnest to stop further fossil fuel mining and industrial agriculture, and to catalyze effective, genuine climate action. Above all, we need rapid economic and social transformation that fosters equality and restores ecosystem health, if we are to have a safe and resilient future. This is all climate justice. Will you join us?