Hydraulic Fracturing: How Great Is the Risk to Health?
June 18, 2012
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?
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.
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