A Health Mystery in Texas

Texas may be garnering the most media attention for its rampant wildfires and Oval Office-aspiring governor, but the state is also home to a health mystery surrounding high breast cancer rates in six counties with the most natural gas drilling. According to an August 31 story in Texas’ Denton Record-Chronicle, there are six counties in the Dallas Fort-Worth Area that have the highest rates of invasive breast cancer in Texas, with percentages in those counties rising from an average of 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to some 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. Those rates are still below national averages, but represent a spike in the state.

While the cause of the rising rates in those six counties needs to be more closely examined, the article notes that “Because the rise in local cancer rates occurred in the same counties as those with the Barnett Shale’s most intense gas drilling development, some residents are concerned about toxic exposures.” Like the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast, the Barnett Shale produces natural gas and oil via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), or the pumping of massive volumes of water, sand and chemicals into deep wells at extremely high pressure until the natural gas and oil are released to the surface via fissures in the underground rock formation.

While Texas residents have complained of contaminated well water post fracking operations, no such relationship has been officially established in the state. But poor cementing and casing jobs for fracking wells—though not the wells themselves—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming did lead to contaminated home wells and nearby waterways, including the presence of benzene, a known carcinogen. The Star-Telegram reports that there are 14,000 producing wells in Texas’ Barnett Shale.

Now findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the very Texas counties in which the majority of these wells are clustered, and those with the highest related air emissions, are the same places experiencing an increase in breast cancer rates—the countries of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise.

Health officials have said that it would be difficult to establish such a link implicating, for example, toxic air exposures from the drilling sites with the cancer rates. Short-term exposure levels cannot be used as a basis. But the six counties do have “the highest count of compressors, separators, tanks and other above-ground points of emissions.” The Denton Record-Chronicle notes that the high cancer rates are being studied by researchers.