Health Study Finds No Cancer Cluster in Texas Shale Community

Anti-fracking activists continue to link shale development with cancer, but science keeps getting in their way.

The latest example of this can be seen in Flower Mound, Tex., where the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) just completed its third investigation of cancer in the community (an update to its previous studies) and found, once again, that there is no evidence of a “cancer cluster” in the area.  As the study concluded:

“The previous CCIs for Flower Mound examined incidence data for leukemia and brain/central nervous system (CNS) childhood cancers (0–19 years), as well as leukemias, non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas, and breast cancers for all ages. Childhood liver cancers were added to this 2014 update at the request of a concerned citizen.

“Female breast cancer was the only type of cancer considered in this report where the observed number of cases was higher than expected and the result was statistically significant; this result is consistent with previous findings.”

In other words, DSHS did not find elevated numbers of leukemia, brain and liver cancers in children, or leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in males and females. The breast cancer cases were higher than expected, but that’s not because of shale development (more on that later).


There’s a long story behind this latest report.  In 2010, activists and residents called for an investigation into whether shale development in the area could be affecting cancer rates.   In order to address citizens’ concerns, DSHS agreed to launch a study on the occurrence of cancer in Flower Mound.  In that study, the DSHS concluded:

“There was no evidence of a cancer cluster in zip codes 75022 and 75028. However, there was a slight elevation of female breast cancer, which is consistent with the population growth in the area and likely higher mammography use compared to Texas overall.

“The analysis of incidence data for zip codes 75022 and 75028, Flower Mound, Texas, from January 1, 1998–December 31, 2007, found childhood leukemia subtypes, childhood brain/CNS cancer subtypes, all age leukemia subtypes, and all-age non Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be within expected ranges in both males and females. A statistically significant elevation was found among females for breast cancer in zip code 75028 and both zip codes combined (but not 75022 alone)”

That same month, well-known anti-fracking activist Wilma Subra (a board member of Earthworks) teamed up with Alisa Rich – yes, the same Alisa Rich who worked with the landowner in Gasland II to create the “deceptive video” of the flaming hose in Parker County – and launched their own investigation into Flower Mound.  Unsurprisingly, they claimed to have found high levels of methane and benzene.  That year, Sharon Wilson continued to highlight cancer in Flower Mound on her blog, and of course, she blamed shale development.

So again in 2011, DSHS agreed to update its study “by including more recent cancer data.”  DSHS again concluded:

“From January 1, 1999 to December 31, 2008, the number of childhood leukemia subtypes,childhood brain/CNS cancer subtypes, all-age leukemia subtypes, and all-age non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for Flower Mound Zip Codes 75022 and 75028 were within the expected ranges both for males and females. The number of female breast cancer cases found reported for each of these Zip Codes was statistically greater than what was expected. From 2008-2010, the average annual numbers of all cancers were similar to that found from 1999-2008.”

In 2013, Wilma Subra and Sharon Wilson teamed up on a study of the Barnett shale (which Flower Mound sits atop), this time with a group known as ShaleTest.  That study claimed to have discovered large amounts of benzene.   The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) came in to investigate, however, and they did not find the health risks alleged by ShaleTest.  In fact, they found that ShaleTest was comparing short-term test results against long-term thresholds.  As the TCEQ later explained, such a method “is not scientifically appropriate.”

Following the lead of Subra and Wilson, Rachael Rawlins, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, released a similar report earlier this year suggesting a link between Barnett Shale development and air pollutants that cause cancer, focusing on Flower Mound.  Rawlins later admitted of her study to the Dallas Business Journal: “The contribution is in law, not science.”

As EID pointed out when the report was released, in order to make her claims, Rawlins – who has also worked with the anti-fracking group Breast Cancer Action – relied heavily on the work of some of the most outspoken anti-fracking activists in Texas and across the country.  For instance, Rawlins uses Subra and Wilson’s flawed ShaleTest report, as well the work of Gasland star Calvin Tillman and Al Armendariz — the same person who was caught on video admitting that his “general philosophy” was to “crucify” oil and gas producers and “make examples out of them.”

But aside from her questionable sources, as Energywire reported, Rawlins criticized DSHS’s 2010 investigation for its selection of a 99 percent confidence interval and suggested that a 95 percent confidence interval was more accurate.

As many news outlets pointed out, Rawlins’ report was the impetus for DSHS’s decision update to its study again.  And, in its latest report, DSHS took Rawlins’ suggestion and evaluated the data with the inclusion of both a 99 percent and 95 percent confidence interval.  Its conclusion?

“Of the cancers examined in this report, breast cancer in females was the only cancer type for which the number of observed cases was higher than expected and the result was statistically significant, a result consistent with the previous DSHS investigations.” (emphasis added)

A quick note about breast cancer: previous DSHS investigations found elevated levels of breast cancer, but they did not attribute this to shale development. Rather, they linked it to population growth (the Dallas-Fort Worth Area is one of the fastest growing regions in the country) and increased use of mammography for early detection.

Thoroughly debunked

This latest report from DSHS continues to confirm that allegations from activists regarding increased cancer rates attributed to shale development are unfounded.  After three reports from DSHS, hopefully the citizens of Flower Mound can feel confident that living near shale development is safe and does not pose a credible health risk.

Texas isn’t the only state to have evaluated health impacts: regulatory agencies in Colorado, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have all evaluated emissions at well pads and concluded that there are no public health concerns.

Anti-fracking activists in Texas and across the country have been working overtime to try to find a link between cancer and shale development, but as this latest DSHS report further confirms, they simply don’t have the science on their side.

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