What Is the Health Impact of Fracking?

Does fracking impact health? It’s a question that some want to answer before projects begin. After all, we know pipelines have caused massive damage before. Since 1993, there have been 5,613 significant pipeline incidents that cut short 367 lives. Ten people were killed last year. In 2010, a pipeline in San Bruno, California, ruptured. The fire from that explosion destroyed 37 homes, damaged 18 others, and killed 8 people. Many more were injured.

But no one is quite sure what the overall health impact is – and it’s not getting any easier for researchers to find out.

Earlier this month, the New York Senate Majority Coalition blocked a vote on a fracking moratorium in the state. In March, the New York Assembly passed the moratorium. Now, it looks like the legislation may be doomed, since it must arrive on the Senate floor before their session ends on June 20.

"Anti-fracking demonstration outside New York Governor Cuomo's office.” Adam Welz/CREDO Action. CC BY 2.0, 2012.

“Anti-fracking demonstration outside New York Governor Cuomo’s office.” Adam Welz/CREDO Action. CC BY 2.0, 2012.

There’s reason to be concerned. Spectra Energy will complete its 16 mile pipeline from New Jersey to New York in November. This pipeline will pump 800 million cubic feet of hydrofracked gas below Manhattan’s West Village every day.

But what do we know about the public health impact of fracking? On May 30 and 31, the National Academy of Sciences hosted a workshop on “Risks of Unconventional Shale Gas Development.” In their presentation on the public health risks, John Adgate, Bernard Goldstein, and Lisa McKenzie reviewed the literature. In their abstract, they wrote:

In worker populations the most serious risks are job-related mortality from worksite or traffic accidents. Based on existing data from conventional hydrocarbon development industries the principal chronic morbidity concerns for shale gas workers are though to be silicosis and cancers associated with hydrocarbon exposures (e.g., leukemia) as well as respiratory and dermal diseases related to these exposures. People living near shale gas operations report noticeable odors and, in some cases, upper respiratory, neurological, and dermatological symptoms that they consider related to development and production activities.

Other presenters discussed the impact of fracking on water resources. Avner Vengosh of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment discussed both the short and long term risks. In the short term, they worry about stray gas contamination and potential spills. In the long term, there are concerns about water shortage, pathways for gas and brine to flow into drinking water, improperly sealed or abandoned wells, and improper disposal of wastes.

“The industry brushes these impacts off. But there are far too many correlations, far too many stories of very serious and very scary health impacts. It’s an area where we know the impacts are happening and we need more information on how widespread they are,” said Katherine Nadeau, Water & Natural Resources Program Director of the Environmental Advocates of New York.

But some people argue that fracking can be done safely. In a review for Science, R.D. Vidic and colleagues argue that it is possible to “avoid an adverse environmental legacy.” The authors minimize the negative consequences. They cite “only one documented case of direct groundwater pollution.” Other incidents, they write, were “quickly mitigated.” With the proper water management, drilling, and cementing practices, the authors suggest that fracking can be safe.

"Natural Gas Fracking.” Daniel Foster. CC BY 2.0, 2013.

“Natural Gas Fracking.” Daniel Foster. CC BY 2.0, 2013.

Others aren’t so sure. “This is major industrial activity and major industrial activities carry major consequences. I don’t think there are blanket assertions that really fit. When something does go wrong, we see major consequences,” said Nadeau.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer with current information,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “There’s a huge vacuum in information.”

This information deficit is convenient for some supporters of fracking. Here’s how this works. The collection of evidence is prevented. Then the lack of evidence is cited in support of their position.

See Elizabeth Ames Jones, a past chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission, who brushes off “the frightful accusations” because of their “precious little evidence.” Or a spokesman for Energy in Depth who cautions against “blaming impacts on the most convenient thing (i.e. hydraulic fracturing) without scientific evidence.”

But a fracking moratorium would allow the collection of scientific evidence. Now, it seems like it might not happen in New York. This would be bad news anywhere. However, this particular source of natural gas, the Marcellus Shale, seems particularly dangerous.

“There is considerable variation within, and among, the different shales. What in one area is a health risk may not be a health risk in another area,” said Rotkin-Ellman.

The Marcellus Shale seems to be especially hazardous, because of its radon concentration. Radon causes lung cancer. A report by Marvin Resnikoff, of the Radioactive Waste Management Associates, states that “wellhead concentrations in Marcellus shale are up to 70 times the average in natural gas wells throughout the U.S.”

Perhaps the most important question, then, is not, do we know the health impact of fracking? The better question is, why don’t we know the health impact – and why are some politicians standing in the way of finding out?

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