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article imageOp-Ed: Is fracking dangerous to human health? Special

By Sandy Dechert     Jan 9, 2014 in Environment
Four states — Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas — have confirmed that hydraulic fracturing, also called "fracking," has caused water pollution near oil and gas wells.
The Associated Press released these state government findings on Sunday. The news bureau first published the data in the "Big Story."
But how well did the public understand what was important in the AP report? Probably not very well. A survey from the University of Texas about twice the size of Gallup's usual weekly polls, conducted in mid-2012 but quoted as recently as 15 months later, and with age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region, and household income weighted where necessary to reflect the actual U.S. population, revealed that almost two-thirds of Americans have no idea how fracking works.
What is fracking?
Widely used in North America over the past decade, fracking is a petroleum mining method that injects a huge, highly pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to break up dense shale rock and release oil and/or gas formerly trapped in it. The mining practice involves nonrenewable and polluting fuels. Thus it does not fit current definitions of "clean" and "green," although when used for power, fracked gas pollutes less than coal or gasoline.
Environmental groups and some politicians believe that fracking could cause environmental damage, including effects on climate and human health. They foresee impacts caused by the rough physics involved (which has been linked to earthquakes in previously nonseismic areas) and due to the use of biocides to kill belowground bacteria, lubricants for smooth product pumping and scale inhibitors to reduce minerals that inevitably clog transport pipes.
Some deride fracking for reducing natural or built areas into seemingly meaningless webs of dirt roads, creating fast wealth, and reinventing previously civilized settlements -- all to be deserted when the resources are exhausted and boom turns to bust. Most of the vaunted "new" jobs created by fracking last only through the exploration and construction phases of development.
Industry, other politicians, and often government hail the recently adopted mining practice as reenabling America's national status and contributing toward our energy independence. The 2010 IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates report Fueling North America’s Energy Future has estimated that natural gas, which provides almost 25% of the U.S. energy supply, could meet half of our needs by 2035. Since President Obama is still holding firm to an "all of the above" energy mix, fracking is not likely to go away any time soon.
Scope of the AP's investigation
For their study, AP researchers requested data from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas, all states heavily involved in the recent surge of oil and gas drilling, about complaints related to hydraulic fracking for oil and gas.
Although multinational oil companies drill thousands of wells across the U.S. without incident each year, AP discovered that hundreds of drilling-related objections have been filed in these four states. The complaints also revealed major differences in state reporting.
Lindsey Abrams revealed the crux of the problem in her article in Salon Tuesday:
For a process that’s driving America’s energy boom, the things we don’t know about fracking for oil and natural gas often seem to surpass that which we do…. Leaving aside the fact that gas and oil companies aren’t required to disclose exactly which [of the hundreds of] chemicals they’re using, actual information about water contamination’s scope and severity… is hard to come by.
The main concern here is not the existence of pollution reports. Almost 2,500 have been cited by officials in four different states. Pollution has been publicly confirmed in some of these cases, and in a handful, the oil and gas companies responsible for doing the fracking have attempted to clean up their errors.
The issue is that the scattershot nature of formal reporting may be confusing or misleading the press and the public. Here are some of the statistics that the states have confirmed from their fracking reports:
Pennsylvania: at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. Almost half of these infractions occurred between 2012 and third-quarter 2012. The commonwealth has no private water-well construction standards. Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said two of the reports showed fracking linked to human health problems. Three of the investigations continue. According to AP, "the department has argued in court filings that it does not count how many contamination 'determination letters' it issues or track where they are kept in its files."
Ohio: six confirmed cases of contamination since 2010 out of 204 reports. Fourteen of these are still under investigation. Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce reportedly said that none of these was related to fracking.
West Virginia: 122 complaints of drilling-caused water well contamination since 2010. Four of these were so compelling that the driller(s) agreed to take corrective action, officials said.
Texas, the most widely mined state: more than 2,000 complaints. Of these, 62 directly allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity. Texas officials produced a detailed 94-page spreadsheet that included the date of each complaint, the landowner, the drilling company, and a summary of the alleged problems. Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the state drilling authority (Railroad Commission of Texas), provided this information but was unable to confirm any proven cases of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years.
The problem worsens because when leasing underground rights to drill, oil and gas companies often require nondisclosure from the surface owners. This practice prohibits those who actually own the property (and lease out their subsurface rights) from discussing problems that come up during the fracking process. And as AP points out, the different requirements of states for reporting fracking issues only muddy an already obscure national picture.
“Right or wrong,” scientist Rob Jackson of Duke University told the AP, “many people in the public feel like [Pennsylvania] DEP is stonewalling some of these investigations.” Accurate information is difficult or impossible to obtain. Similar problems plague the other three states, and almost certainly affect fracking states not under investigation as well.
How fracking affects the environment
As noted earlier, over 60 percent of respondents to the 2012 UT survey [url=http:// t=_blank]did not know how fracking works. The process uses huge amounts of fresh water to flush out deep oil and gas reserves: between 2 and 4 million gallons each time a well is fracked. The water may come from nearby supplies, if they are adequate, or the drillers may have it trucked in. EPA estimates that about 35,000 wells are fracked each year. The amount used in annual drilling could thus supply five million people per year with drinking water.
Some “produced water” (flowback waste, or industry-injected chemicals, which comprise half to two percent of the fracking fluids, that mix with the salty, slightly radioactive water that occurs naturally within the shale layers) pumps out along with the desired petroleum. All these pollutants can and sometimes do seep into adjacent sources of drinking water. Environmentalists, landowners, conscientious public servants, and others worry that local drinking water supplies could be contaminated.
Hydraulic extraction has been known drilling technology not for 10 years, but for many decades. However, the practice of fracking did not become profitable for petroleum companies until energy prices recently skyrocketed. Then the technological advances needed to drill deep and directionally underground became affordable to industry.
A widely cited September 2013 report called America’s New Energy Future: The Unconventional Oil and Gas Revolution and the US Economy has an industry-friendly view of the history and potential. According to IHS, the global information company that produced the study, the recent U.S. increase in unconventional oil and natural gas extraction added an average of $1,200 in discretionary income to each American household in 2012. Petroleum drilling for energy now reportedly supports 1.2 million jobs, a total projected to increase to 3.3 million by the end of this decade.
Denise Robbins of Media Matters for America notes that these figures and estimates greatly exceed the findings of previous studies. Robbins also points out that quite a few major news outlets, including Reuters, CNBC, Forbes, and the Los Angeles Times, covered the IHS report without mentioning the company's financial ties to petroleum and related industries. America's Natural Gas Alliance, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Chemistry Council, the Natural Gas Supply Association, and similar groups all had a part in funding the bullish study.
Does fracking cause human health problems?
The political element and the popular press exploit this question. The recent trend toward "false balance" in news reporting from television and press has created the impression that the subject involves considerable debate.
The Checks and Balances Project has implicated these factors in the growth of false balance thinking:
• Growing influence of the corporate lobbying industry.
• Declining size of the press corps available to fact-check and accurately describe that industry.
• Severe time-impoverishment in newsrooms caused by drastic cutbacks in the size and depth of the press corps, combined with the acute new time pressures of blogging, iterative reporting, and tweeting.
• Ultratechnical nature of energy and environmental issues, which enables charlatans to cloud the debate and crowd out honest brokers, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with authoritative-sounding pronouncements.
Politicians have oversimplified the issue of pollution and human health in the fracking debate and have sharpened their arguments accordingly. Each side now tends toward simply demonizing the other. Here are several relatively plain examples of loose health statements on the anti-fracking side:
Along with this fracking-enabled oil and gas rush have come troubling reports of poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters and explosions. We call them "Fraccidents."
Health consequences of concern include infertility, birth defects, and cancer. 

and a more grounded conclusion from the AP study:
People who live close to natural gas drilling in four states complain of similar health symptoms, ranging from respiratory infections to lesions and neurological...
Compare to these the pro-fracking bias involved in a popular University of Texas-Austin examination of fracking made in concert with the inappropriately named Environmental Defense Fund. EDF's "oddly rosy findings" won praise from the American Petroleum Institute, Energy in Depth, the propaganda film "FrackNation," and The Blaze, a conservative news website founded by Glenn Beck.
"It seems plausible the industry-stacked Committee drove the report in a direction beneficial to oil industry profits rather than science," critics of the EDF report have responded.
In most of the states involved with fracking, legislation and public sentiment have swung back and forth on the issues. Some, like Texas and Pennsylvania, now look to shale gas as a deficit-busting revenue source. More than $500 billion in recoverable gas have been estimated for Pennsylvania alone.
Other states are taking a more cautious approach. Some have tried moratoria and regulatory measures such as not issuing drilling permits without allowing time for an adequate assessment of the situation. After all, regulators note, those petroleum reserves aren't going to fade away in the time it takes to look at things a little more carefully. But political differences among governors, state legislatures, and local officials and stage-managed public outrage tend to heat up the controversy.
"We need to appreciate what we’re getting ourselves into,” says Robert K. Sweeney, chairman of the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation. “It’s not just the pumping of chemicals into the ground or the air pollution, it’s also the effect on quality of life—something as simple as truck traffic, which other states didn’t consider when they issued permits. I’d like to see a cost–benefit analysis that considers the upside of fracking—the jobs, the revenues—but also the downside in terms of loss of property values and health impacts. There’s a lot to this issue that argues for taking our time. The gas isn’t going anywhere, so what’s the rush? If we do it, we should do it right.”
In the end, Drs. Madelon L. Finkel and Adam Law of Weill Cornell Medical College may have summarized what we may need to know about the bottom line on fracking versus demonstrable health risks. Their May 2011 article for the American Journal of Public Health, "The Rush to Drill for Natural Gas: A Public Health Cautionary Tale," provides a broad overview of the medical effects of aggressive drilling for oil and gas:
Little research has been done on the potential adverse health effects of fracking. Roxana Witter et al. reviewed the available literature, which showed evidence of risk to human health ranging from the comparatively benign to the more serious. One study, based on Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission Material Safety Data Sheets for 41 products used in fracturing operations, assessed the chemicals used in fracturing and found that 73% of the products had between 6 and 14 different adverse health effects, including skin, eye, and sensory organ damage; respiratory distress, including asthma; gastrointestinal and liver disease; brain and nervous system harms; cancers; and negative reproductive effects.
Some of the negative health effects appeared fairly soon after exposure, whereas others appeared months or years later.... Of concern is that endocrine-disrupting chemicals may alter developmental pathways, manifesting decades after exposure or even transgenerationally by altering epigenetic pathways. Hydrofracking fluid and flowback fluids contain candidate endocrine disruptors, but because of the lack of disclosure by the drilling companies of the individual chemicals with their unique Chemical Abstracts Service registry numbers... it is difficult to truly assess their potential adverse effects, and so the cumulative exposure impact is not known.
Vincent M. B. Silenzio, M.D., M.P.H., FRSM, FNYAM, who is a practitioner, public health expert, and triple-tenured professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry, had a striking and unusual comment about the fracking/public health debate. Interviewed yesterday, he said:
"From a public health perspective, I think we need to account for both the direct costs to human health and the indirect costs, such as those incurred through environmental damage that influence human health down the line. Right now, a precise accounting of these costs is beyond what current science can pinpoint. But in my view, any policy discussion about fracking must absolutely include a frank admission that someone in the future will be footing the bill for these costs. If we ultimately decide that the benefits of hydraulic fracturing outweigh the risks and the costs, we will need to decide how to pay for those costs."
What can we do to resolve the conundrums?
Proof that hydraulic fracturing for oil and "clean gas" can contaminate community water supplies is now public, thanks to Sunday's AP report. It behooves all of us to commit ourselves to the truth, no matter how hard it hurts or personal priorities. Everyone with a stake in the issue needs to "man up."
We clearly need better and more standardized reporting of unusual incidents, from the industry first and confirmed by government. Much greater transparency would be laudable, with real penalties for insufficient documentation. We may not have to take this as far as China, where public officials can be fined or jailed for incomplete or deliberately false disclosure, but we do have to pay closer attention.
Health effects should be highlighted in project reporting: location and duration of incidents, nature of health problems, how many people are potentially affected, and so on.
We need better energy education. The public can't make policy decisions about controversies in the absence of information (including even the very existence of debated practices). Marketing strategy and advertising too easily promote false assumptions about the scope of the drilling process.
Both the American public and our corporate and political leaders need to face the facts. It's just not possible for everyone to have their cake and eat it, too.
Especially in Europe, countries have voted to outlaw hydraulic fracturing. Less dramatic measures we could adopt include regulations with teeth, amending local and state laws, curtailing transport of hazardous fossil fuels, limiting the time in which companies with exploration permits can progress without serious environmental planning, disallowing lawsuits by oil companies on specious procedural complaints, implementing carbon trading that works, and a dreaded but fair and probably inevitable tax on producers of fossil fuels.
If we are committed to renewable energy like wind and solar to eliminate the demonstrated short- and long-term health effects of drilling (not to mention the ultimately fatal climate effects), we must advocate for these higher principles from the grassroots to the boardroom to the international bargaining table.
We must shut up those on any side who demonize their opponents while ignoring the scientific debate. We must silence the mindless protestations that scientific researchers are just seeking grant money on hot topics. Accusations like these are simply irrelevant and inflammatory in the absence of proof.
Finally, we should consider incentivizing straight talk instead of subsidizing untruths.
"The year just passed will definitely be remembered as a time when oil and natural gas markets started changing quickly and perceptions about America's role in world energy markets changed as well," a publicly funded newscaster declared during the last days of 2013.
Many other important issues surround fracking that do not involve the health tradeoff. Among them: water scarcity, ethics of ownership and profit, international security, and climate change. We cannot be certain how to weigh health among them, but we have to start somewhere. The hidden costs of the past decade’s boom in fossil drilling are starting to emerge.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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