Study Links Cancer to Living Within a Mile of Oil Wells

More than 15 million Americans now reside that close to such developments.

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Feb 15 2017, 7:00pm

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A new study finds that young people with a rare type of cancer more often live near oil and gas sites than those with other cancers. The study, published today in the journal PLOS One, found that those diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia are 4.3 times more likely to live in the densest area of active oil and gas wells. By contrast, researchers found no correlation between non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and high-density oil and gas development. 

The report notes that oil and gas development has grown rapidly in the past 15 years; such activity can potentially emit toxic substances into the air and water. Benzene, for example, is a recognized carcinogen often associated with such development. People living near oil and gas wells, the findings indicate, may have an increased risk for health effects, including cancer, from potential exposure to such toxins. More than 15 million Americans now live within one mile of such developments. 

"Over 378,000 Coloradans and millions of Americans currently live within a mile of at least one oil and gas well, and petroleum development continues to expand into residential areas," read a statement by lead investigator Lisa McKenzie, assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. 

The study included 743 people younger than 24 years old who lived in towns and rural areas in Colorado—all were diagnosed with cancer between 2001 and 2013. Using information from the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System, researchers built a data set of oil and gas wells in rural Colorado, including the dates each well was active. They then compared addresses for those diagnosed with cancer, weighting proximity to the wells and accounting for age, race, gender, income, elevation of residence and year of cancer diagnosis.

There are limitations to the study, including the low occurrence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in rural Colorado. All the study participants had been diagnosed with cancer, and the research was limited by lack of information about their previous residences and individual characteristics such as common infections and family history of cancer. 

The report concludes that future research should address these limitations by incorporating information about the specifics of oil and gas production and development, including levels of specific pollutants such as benzene. Further research should compare cases to controls without cancer, consider age and residential histories, and examine other potential environmental factors. Says McKenzie, "More comprehensive research that can address our study's limitations is needed to understand and explain these results."