Sunday, October 23, 2011

Does Cancer and the Barnett Shale Region Equal Cancer in The Marcellus Shale Region

Recently there has been a resurgence of stories hitting the news media relating to cancer. The stories are based on the 2010 report from the Texas CEQ.  The agency reported that invasive breast cancer rates were higher in the counties that have Barnett shale natural gas extraction. The idea that cancer rates are increasing is a serious allegation. On first read it implies that there is something in that population that is triggering the clinical process which leads to cancer development. However, tucked in all those stories is this article that links to the report done in response to those cancer cluster allegations. It tells a different story.
In summary; the cancer rates found in those Texas counties fell within those expected nationally except for the invasive breast cancer rates which appear to be on the rise. The TCEQ report attributed this rise to, among other things, an increase in the population in the area and the probability of an increase in breast cancer screening rates
The TCEQ report also talks about cancer causes. It states that cancer attributed to environmental exposure account for only a few of the cancer cases (less than 10 percent).  Most cancer results from a combination of factors which include genetic disposition, heredity, diet, tobacco use and a host of other factors.
Another point not addressed in the recent media reports is the fact that cancer is primarily a disease of the older populations (contrary to popular belief), and also the fact that it takes 10 to 30 years after exposure to a carcinogen for cancer to be diagnosed. Shale development has just not been going on long enough to be the only potential culprit.
If the source of the cancer is elsewhere or from another source, then we need to focus our investigative resources to find it. If not, and we continue on the path of blaming the wrong causative agents, there will be a cost to human health.  The concept that shale development is guilty by locale is not a scientific based conclusion, while it may make common sense, it a thin argument that may only warrant a second look and not a conclusion.  The TCEQ did take a second look. They looked for pathways between the natural gas development chemicals that have the potential to cause cancer and the population. They were unable to find any links.
The TCEQ’s conclusion did little to settle people’s concern nor did it make headlines, possibly because some people still do not understand the concept of risk. The simple reality is that, it really doesn't matter how toxic a chemical is, or what its potential adverse effects may be, as long as it is contained or as long as there is no exposure, there will be no associated negative adverse health effects. If this type of associative fear is our logic, then we should not limit our fear to the chemicals used in natural gas development but should also be focused on the toxicity of ALL the "toxic" chemicals that exist in our midst. For example, we should be equally as worried about the anti-freeze that flows through our radiator tanks based on the sheer volume of anti-freeze that exist in close proximity of our day to day lives (all the cars we come in contact with). We should then be developing health impact assessments for antifreezes, lubricants, and gasoline, or whatever other chemicals in our cars that concern us. Or we could do what we have always and continue to do; simply trust in the containment techniques designed by engineers and the regulations that govern the designs to protect us from any adverse effects related to chemical exposure from the “toxic” chemicals found in our cars.  Its not a perfect solution but it has worked  before, so why not now?

Edited to include:

In response to the CDC 2011 report:

 "The region’s high rates have been noted by cancer researchers who are studying it, but who are also unsure of the cause, according to Dr. Keith Argenbright, medical director of Moncrief Cancer Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
“We’re not entirely sure why that is happening,” Argenbright said, adding that it could be a mix of a number of factors.
The medical school has secured funds to conduct screenings, since those rates, too, are lower than the national average. For about every 1,000 screenings the medical school provides, they find about six new cases of breast cancer, Argenbright said, in part because the group targets low-income and underserved areas."
From: Breast Cancer Rates Climb Up from the Denton Record-Chronicle

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