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Nov-30-2012 14:00printcomments

A Young Death, Gas Wells, and Unanswered Questions

We have an unequivocal obligation to protect children from chemicals and the harm they cause, to the degree possible.

Benzene chemical structure
Benzene chemical structure. Courtesy:

(LEXINGTON, MA) - On Thanksgiving day a 19 year old boy died in upstate New York of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Diagnosed with ALL when he was 9, his disease returned with a vengeance when he was 17.* He is the only child of a divorced mother who participated in Cure, a support group for families of children with cancer. When Cure's members learned that the boy lived on a farm where land was leased for gas wells when he was young, they urged his mother to talk with Judy Braiman, a Rochester activist who has worked for 30 years on environmental protections for children. Judy was instrumental in removing arsenic from playground structures, toxics from children's toys, and is now very concerned about the impact on children of gas extraction, including fracking.

The boy's mother was determined to find out if the gas wells were responsible. She felt that there were too many cases of childhood cancer in the area, a concern shared by others at Cure. She also knew that benzene, a chemical that can cause leukemia, was recently found in nearby wells. She responded to dozens of questions posed by Dr. Kathleen Burns, a toxicologist who works on the genesis of cancer and specializes in petroleum hydrocarbons such as benzene. Dr. Burns didn't find any other cancer-causing factors in the family or child's history - no other explanation for the leukemia that was taking the boy's life. But there was also no clear information on exactly what was in and around the well where the boy lived. Two years of searching produced no clear answers, though we still have hope that they exist.

We may never know with 100% certainty whether there was a connection between the boy's death and local water contamination. We may not know the source of benzene and other contaminants in the local water supplies. But we do know a great deal about many chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and other types of harm to our children. We know that many children live with these in their water supplies, food, and in the air of many polluted communities. Too many children are exposed to chemicals that will rob them of their health and longevity.

We have an unequivocal obligation to protect children from these chemicals and the harm they cause, to the degree possible. That doesn't mean to the degree that it is economically pleasing. It means we must place the health of our children above economic interests. Until people are willing to make difficult trade-offs and tell companies and government agencies to halt processes that involve toxic chemicals until safety can be guaranteed, we will continue to bury our sons and daughters. That is a trade-off that no parent should ever have to make and one that our society should not tolerate.


Judy Braiman, Director, Empire State Consumer Project, Rochester NY

Kathleen Burns, Director, Sciencecorps, Lexington MA





New York-wide group working on toxic chemicals and fracking:

US & International: Global Community Monitor:

International:  Health and Environment Alliance: - good listserve on shalegas

   There are many more good groups working on these issues.

Study: Acute childhood leukemia and environmental exposure to potential sources of benzene and other hydrocarbons; a case-control study.


*The child's name is withheld to protect his family's privacy. 



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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.