ARLINGTON, VA -⎯Physicians and public health advocates gathered near Washington, DC, earlier this month calling for an immediate moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (aka "Fracking"), a controversial natural gas extraction method that many believe has serious negative impacts on human health.
Fracking involves high-pressure injection of water, sand and potentially toxic additives into underground rockbeds to release trapped gas. Fracking has been on the rise in recent years, particularly in the Northeast, where massive gas deposits are sequestered in shale plates.
Health concerns include: leaching of carcinogens and neurotoxins from spent fracking fluid into public water, release of subterranean heavy metals and radioactive elements, and air pollution. That's on top of ecosystem damage and potential geologic disruptions.
Science on fracking's health impact is sorely lacking. There are reports of unusual illness patterns in fracked regions, including increased incidence of respiratory ailments, chronic nausea, headaches, arrhythmias, liver and kidney damage, CNS symptoms, and birth/fertility abnormalities. But there are no systematic registries or epidemiologic studies to track and quantify risks.
Further, fracking fluids are proprietary mixtures; drillers are not obliged to disclose the compounds they use, making toxicologic assessment difficult.
"I am very concerned that we are leaping before we are looking," said Jerome Paulson, MD, of George Washington University, at the day-long summit sponsored by Physicians, Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSEHE), an independent non-profit. He and others called for a nationwide moratorium on fracking until comprehensive safety studies have been done.
Trading Health for Heat?
Dr. Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health & the Environment, acknowledged that, "the world needs alternative sources of energy besides coal and oil. Natural gas is very attractive. There's a domestic supply that...now seems to be more available to extraction than it was in the past."
Industry estimates suggest that fracking has markedly increased availability of natural gas, reducing domestic prices by as much as 32%, and that the opportunity to sell their land to gas developers provides economic relief to many families in rural areas. But Dr. Paulson stressed that, "the natural gas industry has not provided the American public with sufficient information to make benefit-to-risk calculations."
A host of potentially hazardous chemicals have been identified in and around fracking sites, including lead, arsenic, radionuclides (radon, radium 226, radium 228, uranium 238), strontium, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, phthalates and many others. Fracking is also a 24/7/365 operation, meaning that it generates a lot of constant noise and light pollution, causing sleep disturbance and relentless stress for people who live near drilling sites.
Without any serious independent studies, it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions on how any of this translates into actual disease risk, said Dr. Paulson. He called on drilling and energy companies to fund an independent foundation that would support research related to human and ecosystem health. "It should not be the responsibility of the public to fund research to determine whether hydraulic fracturing and natural gas recovery from shale is dangerous after the fact."
Adam Law, MD, an endocrinologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a founder of PSEHE, called on health care professionals and researchers to speak out on this issue. "Our guiding principle for public policy should be the same as the one used by physicians: 'First, do no harm.' There is a need for scientific and epidemiologic information on the health impacts of fracking."
In his opinion, industry has not done nearly enough to finance the needed research nor addressed the health care needs of people in affected regions.
A Toxic 2%
The simple dictionary—actually wikipedia--definition of fracking is, "the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurized fluid."
High-volume fracking, as is being done in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, involves blasting vast volumes of sand and fluid underground---as much as 2-3 million gallons per well. That fluid is about 98% water---a huge drain on a precious resource, to be sure, but not in itself a direct health threat.
It's the other 2% that worries public health advocates.
According to an April 2011 report from the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy & Commerce, of the 750 compounds known to be used in fracking mixtures, over 650 contained chemicals "that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants."
Another 2011 study, titled "Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective" and published in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, ID'd over 632 chemicals used in natural gas extraction; just over half (55%) are well described in the scientific literature. Of these, 75% are known irritants to the eyes, skin, respiratory and GI systems; 40-50% may be neuro-, cardio- or renotoxic; 37% affect endocrine glands; and 25% are mutagens or carcinogens.
Known toxins in fracking formulas include: benzene, lead, ethylene glycol, methanol, boric acid, and 2-butoxyethanol. The potential health effects of the other 45% of compounds used in fracking are entirely unknown and will remain so as long as there is no mandate for disclosure.
Vikas Kapil, DO, MPH, of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Environmental Health, called for mandatory disclosure of all compounds used in fracking operations—a demand shared by most of the speakers at the PSEHE meeting. He told attendees that he'd like to see the CDC put its fearsome toxicological capabilities to work on this issue.
"CDC operates the best biomonitoring labs in the world, which could be used to track human exposure to hazardous chemicals used in gas drilling, and monitor their health impacts."
Frackers are exempt from compliance with the US Safe Drinking Water Act. This Congressional exemption was based on a 2004 EPA study of fracking in coal bed methane wells that concluded that the technique posed minimal threat to underground drinking water sources.
Critics say the study is flawed because it focused only on the direct effect of hydraulic fluid injection, and excluded other facets of fracking like waste water disposal or release of underground toxic metals. The study was also conducted before the wave of fracking in the mid 2000's, and before complaints of serious illness began to be reported.
While potentially toxic compounds make up a very small percentage of the hydraulic fluid, the sheer volume it takes to fracture an underground shale bed means that up to 100,000 gallons of chemical additives may be used over the lifetime of each drilling site, according to the House of Representatives report.
A Flashpoint in PA
France has banned fracking outright, and in several other countries specific provinces have issued moratoriums, New South Wales, Australia, the Karoo basin in South Africa), and Quebec, Canada. In the US, New York State recently issued a moratorium, and other states are considering similar moves.
The Pennsylvania hamlet of Dimock became a major flashpoint—excuse the pun—in the fracking controversy when 13 drinking water wells were found to be contaminated with methane gas and a long list of other toxins, the release of which was attributed to fracking by Cabot Oil & Gas. One such well exploded. Some Dimock residents have demonstrated the level of methane in their discolored, foul smelling water by passing lighters near their faucets, combusting the fumes.
Cabot, based in Houston, TX, denies that fracking—which began in 2008--was the cause of Dimock's water contamination, pointing to a geological report suggesting that the methane and toxic metals came from natural occurrences.
After public outcry, the state's Department of Environmental Protection required Cabot to compensate affected residents financially, and deliver clean water to the town, something that continued until the end of November, when the DEP absolved the drillers of their responsibility, despite the fact—according to town residents and activists--the public water supplies remain contaminated.
In recent years, there have been more than 1,000 reports of ground water contamination thought to be caused by or associated with fracking. The impact on small towns across the nation was the subject of a 2010 documentary film Gasland.
Beyond the impact on water supplies, fracking generates air pollution---large amounts of soot, volatile organic compounds, and ozone--which aggravates asthma and other respiratory disorders, and has been linked to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, various types of cancer and preterm birth, said Sandra Steingraber, PhD, at the PSEHE forum.
She believes that the practice amounts to nothing less than a human rights violation, not only against the current generation of people who must live near fracking sites, but against future generations as well.
Supporters of fracking, including gas industry representatives, say that by enabling drillers to tap a plentiful domestic energy source, fracking can help cut America's use of coal—the dirtiest of dirty fuels—and reduce foreign oil dependence.
Dr. Steingraber dismissed those arguments. "In the real world, we have no energy plan. There is no deal to swap out coal for gas. It's possible, and likely, that we'll frack the whole Marcellus Shale and keep blowing up the mountains of Kentucky, too. We could...keep the lights on with coal, and sell the gas for export—to China or to Europe—where the prices are higher."
Open Inquiry or Witch Hunt?
Not surprisingly, energy industry representatives maintain the position that fracking is safe, and that the speakers at the PSEHE gathering are pseudoscientists with an anti-industry agenda.
Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, a Washington-based research and advocacy group financed by oil and gas interests, told Bloomberg News that the industry has been fracking in 30 states for 65 years now, with a "demonstrable history of safe operations." Mr. Tucker acknowledged that deep, high volume fracking in shale deposits began much more recently, in 2004.
According to the Bloomberg article, drillers must report to federal, state and local authorities any spills of fracking chemicals that are "considered hazardous in high concentrations." But Mr. Tucker conceded that these reports don't include amounts or concentrations.
Still, he told Bloomberg that the PSEHE physicians' health worries are unfounded, calling the meeting "a closed-door pep-rally against oil and natural gas development," and blasting the CDC for Dr. Kapil's participation. John Krohn, communications director at Energy In Depth, was even more blunt, calling the meeting "a witch hunt."
Global Issue, Local Battles
Even with strong evidence of a link between fracking and human illness—and certainly not without it—public health advocates are unlikely to get a nationwide ban on fracking any time soon. Nor are they likely to get much collaboration from industry.
Despite the fact that the President's Natural Gas Subcommittee specified public health as a key consideration in any policymaking about fracking, there are no individuals with medical or public health credentials on any of the three committees (the Pennsylvania Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission; the Maryland Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission; or the Secretary of Energy's Natural Gas Subcommittee) involved in setting fracking policy in the Northeast.
In a public statement, PSEHE concludes that, "Despite recognition of the environmental public health concerns related to drilling in the Marcellus Shale, neither state nor national advisory committees selected to respond to these concerns contained recognizable environmental public health expertise."
For the foreseeable future, the battle over fracking and public health will go on town by town, county by county, state by state. And it's likely to get ugly.
Dr. Steingraber, who donated the $100,000 Heinz Award prize she won for her environmental writing to anti-fracking efforts in upstate New York, said many towns around the country have issued bans and moratoriums, but they face massive legal challenges from drillers.
As an example, she cited the community of Dryden, NY, which banned fracking last August. The town is one of 20 New York State municipalities to do so. Those supporting the bans say they are essential for protecting local water supplies, ensuring public health and preserving ecological integrity. Those opposed contend that New York State--particularly the rural regions hard-hit by the recession--will lose out on much-needed revenue from the shale-gas boom if towns are permitted to ban gas drilling activities.
In November, the Dryden town council found out that it is being sued by Anschutz Exploration Corp., a Colorado based drilling company owned by Philip Anschutz, who according to Forbes magazine is the 34th richest man in the US, with an estimated personal worth of $7 billion.
Anschutz claims Dryden lacks authority to ban oil and gas prospecting and development, a prerogative that is the sole jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. State laws, say Anschutz attorneys, supersede all local laws.
In a report on the website DC Bureau, Dryden's attorney, Mahlon R. Perkins, acknowledged that state law preempts local governments from regulating how gas drillers operate, but they don't prevent municipalities from governing where or if. Dryden cannot regulate Anschutz's operations, but it can ban them, says Mr. Perkins said. The state statute in question does not explicitly express an intent to usurp local zoning authority.
In short, residents of this small town in the Finger Lakes region of New York State find themselves in a pitched legal battle with a major national energy prospecting company owned by one of the richest men in the country. Decisions on this case could set precedents on the issue of local fracking moratoriums for all of New York State and many other states for years to come.