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PSR speaks out against fracking

July 24, 2012

PSR’s executive director will be a featured speaker at the first nationwide demonstration to protest the use of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in natural gas and oil extraction. Catherine Thomasson MD will speak at the “Stop the Frack Attack” rally, July 28 in Washington DC, updating the crowd on fracking’s potential health consequences.

In fracking, a highly pressurized mix of water and chemicals is forced deep into the earth to break apart gas- or oil-permeated rock.  It is then withdrawn to bring the fossil fuel up to the surface.  The resulting threats to health include air pollution, contamination of drinking water, and emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.

Board of Directors acts

PSR’s board of directors voted in March of this year to support “a precautionary approach that includes a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing” until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or other impartial federal agencies could develop and implement “enforceable rules that provide adequate protection for human health and the environment.”

The board also called for full disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, the amount of waste generated by their operations, and the waste management procedures used for disposing of fracking wastes.  They noted that “[t]he costs of such health-protective measures are the costs of this business and should not be paid by the general public.”

PSR members are invited to join Dr. Thomasson on the Mall to reinforce that call for prudence, restraint and corporate responsibility.

Toxic liquid wastes

Fracking is known to create large quantities of toxic liquid waste.  The chemicals used in drilling and in fracturing can be highly toxic and include known carcinogens, such as benzene, butoxyethanol, and methanol.  Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also present in significant amounts.  These are substances that interfere with the production or action of natural hormones in the human body which maintain bodily homeostasis and regulate reproduction, development and some behaviors.

In addition to the toxins put into the ground, “flowback water” withdrawn from a drilling well after the fracturing process, and “produced water” returned to the surface with the natural gas, introduce other toxic substances. These can include heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, naturally occurring radioactive materials like radon and uranium, and chloride. Containment of these returned waters remains a problem that has not been adequately addressed either by reuse for other drilling operations or by treatment.

Air pollution, climate change

Natural gas fracking can also lead to air pollution.  Emissions of ozone precursors such as nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can lead to increased respiratory morbidity and mortality. Natural gas operations also produce other conventional air pollutants such as benzene, xylene, formaldehyde, toluene, hydrogen sulfide, and ethylbenzene that pose both carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic health risks.

The fugitive emissions of methane are particularly dangerous.  Methane is another precursor of toxic ground-level ozone; it is also a greenhouse gas whose effects in trapping heat are estimated to be 25 to 32 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Further information on fracking, written by doctors and researchers, is available on PSR’s Environmental Health Policy Institute.

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