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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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Hydraulic Fracturing: How Great Is the Risk to Health?

Posted by Barbara Gottlieb


Welcome to the June issue of PSR’s Environmental Health Policy Institute. The question we posed to our experts this month is: What are the health concerns associated with “fracking”?

Hydraulic fracturing – the fracturing of rock or tight sand by hydraulic pressure, using a combination of water, sand and chemical additives – has been used to extract natural gas and petroleum from the earth since 1947.  More recently, technological advances including deep drilling over a mile into the earth, the use of horizontal drilling, and new chemical solutions have increased the effectiveness of the process.  The augmented productivity of sites that previously were too expensive to drill has dramatically expanded use of this technology, often known as "fracking.”   Today, a fracking boom is underway in the Marcellus Shale formation that runs from New York State to West Virginia and in western states such as Colorado and Wyoming.

Though this new drilling technology allows cheaper drilling for gas and oil, concern is growing about its health and environmental implications, whether due to the fracturing itself or other aspects of the natural gas shale-drilling lifecycle.  Hydraulic fracturing companies inject into the ground solutions containing dozens of chemical components.  Some components are known carcinogens; many more are unknown, because manufacturers consider their composition to be proprietary information or a trade secret.  What are the effects of injecting these chemicals into the earth?  Are local aquifers endangered – and drinking supplies?  What is to be done with the astounding amounts of polluted water and mud that result, requiring treatment and/or storage?  The intense consumption of water resources is another big concern, especially in the arid West.

Besides water issues, other problems have been associated with hydraulic fracturing.  The release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is one concern. Another is methane:  Wellheads have leaked gases including methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide.  In addition, local communities complain about the noise, vibration and diesel fumes from drilling operations and from the literally thousands of truck trips necessitated by the fracking process. In other places, earthquakes have been attributed to fracking, either from re-injecting the returned fracking fluid into abandoned mines or deep underground, or from the hydraulic fracturing itself.

These and similar concerns led Physicians for Social Responsibility in March 2012 to adopt a position on fracking.  It states in part that:

PSR supports a precautionary approach that includes a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing until such time as impartial federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develop and implement enforceable rules that provide adequate protection for human health and the environment from fossil fuel extraction processes that use hydraulic fracturing. 


The need for fuller knowledge and better protections for human wellbeing led us to devote this month’s EHPI to the question:  How does hydraulic fracturing – "fracking” – affect the public’s health?

Responses

Animals as Sentinels of Human Health in Hydraulic Fracking
By Michelle Bamberger, MS, DVM and Robert Oswald, PhD




Public Health Concerns of Shale Gas Development
By Jake Hays and Adam Law, MD




Socioeconomic Change and Human Stress Associated with Shale Gas Extraction
By Jill Kriesky, PhD




Health Risk Assessment of Natural Gas Drilling in Colorado
Interview with Lisa McKenzie, PhD, MPH




Natural Gas: The Newest Danger for Global Warming
By Catherine Thomasson, MD




The Big Secret? Fracking Fluids
By Walter Tsou, MD, MPH

The views expressed in these essays are those of their respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Comments

Nate G (7th grade) said ..

I agree w/ Louis M. Russell Sr. except that it is very hazardous to health

November 9, 2013
Sally Hansen said ..

Strange illnesses,both chronic & acute, in the gas field we live in. So obvious but no one will listen. Medical providers say "there have been no studies" linking drilling/fracking fluids &/or activities to human disease(s).

May 11, 2013
K. Morgan said ..

I have spent quite a bit of time researching the chemicals used in fracking and it seems like the only way to get any data in bulk form on fracking chemicals disclosures is from http://pivotupstreamgroup.com/D-FRAC.aspx (D-FRAC). I tried the Frac Focus site but it will only let you have info one well at a time... and there are just too many well frackings for this. Some of the chemicals used seem benign, like guar gum, but others are known to be very toxic to the environment.

July 20, 2012
Dr John O'Connor said ..

Could not agree more--a moratorium is indeed needed. From the US to Canada to Europe, it is amazing and I daresay not a coincidence the way Big Gas/Oil infiltrate government. Then the spell is cast--jobs, wealth, and obviously political longevity--promises unfulfilled. The environmental and sociology-economic reality is nightmarish. Remember--the bottom line for these companies is their bottom line. Typically the frackingly-targeted areas have high unemployment, large tracts of H2O and are pristine. Prime for the killing. Ireland is currently besieged by Tamboran out of Australia and Calgary. The major fresh water supply for most of the country is imperiled. And the average politician has not a clue. Physicians must advocate as much as they can and not be influenced by the politics of the day. Our patients--our constituents--rely on us. We must not blink, or allow ourselves to be blinkered.

June 27, 2012
Ken Klemow said ..

Hydrofracking exists because (1) people throughout the U.S. expect the blue flame to appear whenever they turn the knob or crank up the thermostat, and (2) they don't give a hoot as to what the gas companies have to do to give them that flame. So if PSR wants to make a real statement, they should demand that all consumers boycott natural gas that may be derived fully or in part from hydrofracking. Of course, that will never happen, because we don't see our own demands and expectations as being the root cause of the problem.

June 23, 2012
Louis M. Russell Sr. said ..

It seems extremely hazzardous to health.

June 22, 2012
Terry Lyon said ..

I agree with the lead article that a cautious approach and independent study is needed.

June 21, 2012

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