Backyard Talk

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

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.

Backyard Talk

Halloween Nightmare

I dreamed that just as I entered a Halloween haunted house the first monster I ran into was Frackenstine.  Just like the book Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley about a creature produced by an unorthodox scientific experiment I noticed that the Frackenstine that stood before me was also made up by combining many parts.  Frackenstines legs turned out to be the Ohio legislature that gave the monster his legs to make his way around Ohio, his torso was made of the Ohio oil and gas industry, his arms were the different state agencies that gave the monster the strength to strong-arm Ohio communities by not allowing citizens or local government to have any say into whether or not they wanted this massive industrial process to destroy their community.  The Frackenstine monster was so big I was having a hard time seeing who or what made up the head  but as I moved farther away from the monster I could see that the monsters head was Ohio’s own governor, Governor John Kasich who has become the mouthpiece and cheerleader for industry.

Down a long dark hallway I came to a closed door, as I opened the door I saw a room full of bubbling cauldrons.  As I looked around the room I saw thousands of Material Safety Data Sheets with all of the toxic chemicals blacked out.  There was also a flashing sign that warned of radiation.  While trying to read all of the signs I was suddenly approached by someone dressing in a hazardous materials moonsuit telling me that bubbling brew was safe and not to worry.  Even though he was dressed in protective garb he informed me that I was not allowed to know what was in the bubbling toxic brew and the door was quickly closed in my face.  As the door closed I could hear the sinister laugh of a crazy person who had spent too much time inhaling the toxic vapors of the bubbling cauldrons full of fracking fluid.

As I continued down the dark hallway I turned a corner and was face to face with a Vampire with blood dripping from his fangs. NO wait, it wasn’t blood dripping, I realized his fangs are drilling rigs that were dripping oil and he is hungry for more and more.  He can’t get enough; he is sinking his rigs into hundreds of thousands of acres of Mother Earth just to see if he can find more oil or gas to feed his needs.  I thought if I can just hold out until dawn the sun would destroy this vampire, but I was so wrong.

As I was about to exit the haunted house I heard the screams of the banshee foretelling the death of life as we know it.  No longer will we have local communities where we can cross the street without worrying about being hit by one of the thousands of trucks or being harassed by out of state workers that have no since of pride for the community.  We face industrial facilities in places where they have no business being in.

But wait, I suddenly realized I was not asleep, I was not having a nightmare.  What I had thought was a horrible nightmare was indeed reality for many communities in Ohio and across the nation that are faced with the nightmare known as fracking.

Backyard Talk

Over 5,000 March On D.C. To Stop Fracking

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Photo by Hendrik Voss

Over 5,000 people traveled from all over the country this past Saturday July 28th to be part of a rally and powerful voice against fracking on the West lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Their goal: to end dirty and dangerous fracking; closure of the seven legal loopholes that let frackers in the oil and gas industry ignore the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; and full enforcement of existing laws to protect families and communities from the effects of fracking. Not unreasonable demands given that hydro fracturing for gas or “Fracking” has already destroyed people’s land, water, air, property and health. Asking congress to stop this destructive practice is a no brainer but then some in congress don’t act on intellect but only focused on greed and/or how they can get reelected.

Congress has the power to stop the fracking of our country and the destruction of the American Dream for so many people. The fracking industry, astonishingly, doesn’t even have to adhere to the laws that other industries are held to like the safe drinking water act — a critical law — because when there is no safe water people die.

If you were at the rally you would have experienced people’s feelings of fear and frustration among many who were gathered to speak to the issue and talk with congressional representatives. So many of the participants expressed how they have experienced or fear their lives being destroyed, their families left helpless and frustrated because they cannot stop the frackers. “Our land has been in our family for generations and now it’s poisoned, polluted and unusable. We received no benefits, no money from the frackers and today we have nothing but poisoned land not fit for livestock or crops. This is so wrong,” said a grassroots farmer from Pennsylvania.

“I support any legislation that we can get passed that will cost the companies money,” said another activist who attended the demonstration. “I don’t think that there can be a safe form of fracking.”

If you were at the rally you would have also been swept up in the enthusiasm, energy and sense of power people felt. Together we are strong . . . together we can make a difference, said many of the participants. There were all kinds of people there, young, old, farmers, businessmen and women, rich, poor, black, white, brown a reflection of the diverse American populace.

Rally speakers included, Bill McKibben, co-founder of; Josh Fox, producer of Gasland; Calvin Tillman, former mayor of Dish, Texas; Allison Chin, board president of the Sierra Club, and community members from swing states affected by fracking. After the rally people marched for more than one hour, stopping at the headquarters of the America’s Natural Gas Alliance and American Petroleum Institute.

“As the increasingly bizarre weather across the planet and melting ice on Greenland makes clear, at this point we’ve got no choice but to keep fossil fuels underground. Fracking to find more is the worst possible idea,” said McKibben.

This was an impressive rally with grassroots people impacted by fracking in their communities joined together with 136 local and national organizations to call on Congress to Stop the Frack Attack and protect Americans from the dangerous impacts of fracking. CHEJ was proud to play a small role in the event.


Backyard Talk

Fracking Waste is Too Toxic For Niagara Falls

We’re not selling out future generations of our children for corporate greed.

This was a statement made by a Niagara Falls Council Chairman who at one time attended school in the Love Canal contaminated neighborhood.  It is refreshing to hear someone who has learned from our society’s past mistakes and takes steps to avoid the same problems in the future.

Niagara Falls has recently gone on record against treating wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, with elected officials saying they don’t want the city that endured the Love Canal toxic waste crisis to be a test case for the technology used in gas drilling operations.

The City Council also approved an ordinance Monday that prohibits natural gas extraction in Niagara Falls, as well as the “storage, transfer, treatment or disposal of natural gas exploration and production wastes.”

This does not mean that the Niagara Falls Water Board, who owns the treatment facility can’t agree to take the fracking waste, despite the city council decisions.  However, they would have to air lift the wastes in which would be costly, because the City will not allow it to be transferred or stored.

After celebrating this proactive and protective decision by the city council I realized that years ago a similar policy was passed in the city of New Bedford, MA.  In that situation the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) wanted to place a portable incinerator near the shoreline and burn the PCB wastes that were going to be dredged from the harbor.

When the city said no and passed a similar policy, the USEPA said we can air lift the incinerator on to the site.  The city countered by saying they would refused to give them permits for water and electricity. The USEPA came back with, we’ll air lift the incinerator, a generator and water tanks.  This became a big scandal and EPA backed down.

The lesson here is — believe the unbelievable when it comes to greed at any costs.  The city of Niagara Falls needs to watch carefully to make sure that their proactive intentions of protecting public health and the environment are in fact accomplished.

As a former resident I have to say that I am proud of the recent decision and foresight the city has demonstrated. If only Ohio could see the problem in the same light. They’ve had earthquakes and other related problems with waste disposal already. When will they ever learn?