Researchers from University of Colorado, Anschutz, report the potential connection in a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
“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,” lead investigator Lisa McKenzie said.
The team reviewed records from the Colorado Central Cancer Registry and the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System to establish a dataset with coordinates of all oil and gas wells in rural Colorado. The research included 743 young Coloradans aged 0-24 years who were diagnosed with cancer between 2001 and 2013.
Geocoded residential addresses of patients were cross-referenced with active well locations in the decade preceding initial cancer diagnoses, which revealed the possible link between childhood leukemia and oil and gas industrial activity.
“The findings from our registry-based control study indicate that young Coloradans diagnosed with one type of childhood leukemia are more likely to live in the densest areas of oil and gas sites,” McKenzie said.
The team found no association between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and high-density oil and gas development.
Oil and gas development in the United States has grown rapidly over the past 15 years, a trend that expands the geographical reach of an industrial activity that has the potential to emit toxic substances into air and water, including carcinogens like benzene.
The report concludes that future research should include information on oil and gas development activities and production levels – as well as levels of specific pollutants – near schools, day care centers and homes.
“More comprehensive research that can address our study’s limitations is needed to understand and explain these results,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie referenced low occurrence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in rural Colorado, lack of specific age data and only including study participants that had been diagnosed with cancer as specific limitations of the team’s research. The study also lacked information on specific activities at the well sites.
The team focused on rural areas and towns in 57 Colorado counties and excluded urban areas of more than 50,000 people.