Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Texas ‘Needs More Research’ into Health Risk of Living Near Drilling Sites

Dave Fehling/StateImpact

Drilling in South Texas

(Update: Texas Department of State Health spokesperson Chris Van Deusen emailed StateImpact Texas to clarify that the department’s efforts would rely on data “that’s already out there.”)

Environmental researchers in Utah tracked a mysterious smog problem to natural gas wells. Colorado public health researchers said living within a half mile of gas well drilling sites could be dangerous to your health. And in Texas, national attention has recently focused on a rise in breast cancer in one area where drilling is booming.

But finding definitive research on the health impact of oil and gas drilling on nearby residents has been difficult.

Texas health officials have done limited surveys and testing which generally concluded that the dramatic increase in drilling, largely due to the technique called fracking, isn’t hurting people who live near the sites. But conflicting findings, like those in Colorado, are prompting new concern.

Texas Deciding Next Step

“I think what it shows is a need for more research. That’s what we’re looking at now, what else can be done,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson with the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In an interview with StateImpact Texas, Van Deusen said the department is discussing how to address growing concerns that Texas has failed to do broad-based health surveys despite being a center for the enormous growth in drilling.

Doyle Willis Jr.

Libby Willis lives near a gas well site in Fort Worth

“I kind of have always worried about it because there’s so much that we don’t know. And I think that we need to know,” said Libby Willis, president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations.

A Big Gap

“I’m not aware than anybody has really done a comprehensive, over-arching study of what are the health impacts. That seems to be a big hole, a big gap that we have,” Willis told StateImpact Texas.

Fort Worth is in the Barnett Shale, one of the most productive regions for natural gas in Texas. It’s getting new attention after New York filmmaker Josh Fox of “Gasland” fame released a video earlier this summer. In “The Sky is PInk” there are a few lines about how breast cancer rates have been falling in Texas except, said Fox, in the Barnett Shale region where the “five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer…”

Cancer and Drilling

The cancer rate story was reported a year ago by the Denton Record-Chronicle. But the Texas health department, that maintains a cancer registry, said the increase wasn’t beyond the “margin of error” and in no way could be conclusively linked to air pollution from gas wells.

“Our researchers have gone back as prompted by some fairly recent media attention over the last several weeks…and looked specifically at the breast cancer rates,” the health department’s Van Deusen said.

“There has not been a statistically significant increase in the amount of breast cancer incidence in those counties that are mentioned in the article,” Van Deusen said.

(Here are links to the Texas health department’s previous reports on concerns in the North Texas towns of Dish and Flower Mound.)


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