Health Effects Associated with Natural Gas Extraction using Hydraulic Fracturing or Fracking

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Perhaps the most intense public health issue to hit the east coast in the past five years is the extraction of natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking. This process involves mixing more than a million gallons of water, sand and proprietary toxic chemicals and injecting this mixture at very high pressure into horizontally drilled wells as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface. This pressurized mixture causes the rock layer to crack creating fissures or passage ways in the rock. These fissures are held open by the sand particles so that natural gas from the shale can flow back up the well. This technique has proven so effective at reaching previously hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves that it has spurred a boom in natural gas production around the country.

This boom in natural gas production has also spurred a boom in community activism in areas targeted for drilling such as the Marcellus Shale, a layer of sedimentary rock that spans nine states including NY, PA, and OH.  Drilling in these areas has brought controversy and anger to the impacted communities.

People who live next to these drilling sites are reporting a wide range of adverse health effects including respiratory difficulties, skin rashes, digestive disorders, and neurological problems. There are complaints of foul odors, water pollution, incessant noise and 24 hours per day production.

This past week-end I heard first hand about these problems, as CHEJ conducted two training workshops in western PA. The first workshop was in Dubois, in north western PA in Clearfield County. The host group was Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water & Air (PACWA). They shared a “List of the Harmed,” a report describing 565 people with adverse health and environmental problems related to fracking sites. This is an incredible collection of first hand accounts of the impacts of fracking that covers the entire country.There was more of the same the next day in Butler.

In preparing for a presentation on the health impacts of fracking, I searched the published literature for papers that addressed this issue. I found none, though my search led me to a colleague who is presenting a paper on this very topic at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association this week in San Francisco. She alerted me to a paper in the published literature by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, researchers at Cornell University in NY. This paper, “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health,” published this year in the journal New Solutions, was  the only paper that she had found.

This paper includes 24 case studies that describe animal health effects and some human health effects in 6 states. Owners of livestock were interviewed who had suspected water and air exposures associated with living near natural gas extraction wells. The livestock had suffered a variety of adverse health effects including reproductive, skin, digestive, urological, respiratory and neurological problems, and in some cases sudden death. The owners in many cases experienced health effects as well. These effects included respiratory and neurological problems, skin rashes and digestive problems. These findings are similar to what PACWA reported in their List of the Harmed.

Another excellent summary on the human health risks posed by fracking was prepared by scientists for the Grassroots Environmental Education organization. This paper, “Human Health Risks and Exposure Pathways of Proposed Horizontal Hydrofracking in New York,” was presented at a meeting with state officials in Albany, NY earlier this month.

At this time, there are very little scientific data (one paper) documenting adverse human health effects resulting from the extraction of natural gas using hydrologic fracturing. Meanwhile, grassroots activists are organizing and collecting their own data documenting adverse health effects in people living near natural gas drilling sites. It’s clear that a number of hazardous and toxic chemicals are used in and produced by the fracking process. It’s also clear that a number of very realistic and in some cases documented routes of human exposure exist. But without additional information, including on the proprietary chemicals mixed in with the drilling fluids, the public health risks of natural gas extraction from hydrologic fracturing will be difficult to quantify.

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