The Health Impacts of Fracking: A HealthCentral Explainer

CRegal Editor
  • Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the ground in an effort to crack shale rock deep beneath the ground.  Once the shale is cracked, vast resources of natural gas can be released and, ideally, harnessed for consumption.


    The center of the controversy over fracking is the Marcellus Shale, a huge underground formation that stretches across the northeastern United States, ranging from central New York through northeastern and western Pennsylvania and farther west to West Virginia and eastern Ohio.  Fracking advocates contend that it has enormous potential as a resource of natural gas.

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    Currently, New York has a moratorium on fracking while Pennsylvania does not, as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is awaiting information from the state Department of Environment Conservation before making a decision.  This issue also packs a significant political punch, as Cuomo is believed to have his eye on national politics. 


    On one hand, the potentially immense supply of natural gas could provide jobs in rural regions and also pave the way for the energy independence.  On the other hand, pumping chemicals into the ground and disrupting the environment could carry significant health risks.


    Fracking supporters argue that environmental problems are the result of outdated practices and poorly managed projects.  Opponents claim that the practice increases the risk of water contamination and air pollution.


    The Environmental Protection Agency lists potential impacts of fracking to include

    • Stress on surface water and ground water supplies
    • Contamination of underground sources of drinking water
    • Adverse impacts from discharges into surface water
    • Air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases.


    The EPA has also established laws to ensure the safe disposal of wastewater from the sites, as well as regulations on air pollutants and disposal.  However, these regulations merely seek to control the potential for disaster, but what of other practices that aren’t regulated?


    In one of the most conclusive reports to date, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health have linked the air pollutants produced by fracking to acute and chronic health problems, ranging from respiratory effects and eye irritation to an increased risk of cancer.  The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, identified benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene as EPA-classified air pollutants found in the air near fracking sites.  These pollutants can produce adverse health effects, as well as concern that not all of the names of chemicals being pumped into the shale have been released to the public. 


    In an article in the Baltimore Sun,  Karen Huffling, Director of Programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments, claimed that fracking has been linked to "cancer and kidney, liver and neurological damage."  Though no evidence is provided, Huffling does have justification for medical concerns, as health care workers do not know what chemicals patients may have been exposed to, limiting treatment options and potentially exposing these workers to harmful chemicals.


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    An article on supports claims of adverse health effects, as residents of Pennsylvania in close proximity to fracking sites claim symptoms of metallic taste in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, headaches, rashes, wheezing and aches and pains.  One interview subject specifically said these symptoms come in "wafts" that stink like nail polish remover when the wind blows in air from near the site.


    In "The Future of Fracking: New Rules Target Air Emissions for Cleaner Natural Gas Production," published in Environmental Health Perspectives, author Bob Weinhold cites the EPA in  identifying cancer, cardiovascular, respiratory, neurologic and developmental damage as being linked to the aforementioned pollutants.  He also states that fracking chemicals have been tied to "adverse outcomes such as premature mortality, emergency department visits, lost work and school days and/or restricted activity days." 


    The American Lung Association, the American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, Trust for America's Health and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America wrote a joint letter to the EPA calling for the "strongest possible standards to reduce harmful emissions from the production wells, processing plants, transmission pipelines, and storage units within the oil and natural gas industry."  Further, this group identified "circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and other essential and vital life systems" as being linked to air pollutants associated with fracking. 


    In defense of fracking, a joint report from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) have deemed the practice safe.  According to the chief scientist in the study, Sir John Beddington, the risks of "hydraulic fracturing for shale can be safely managed provided there is best practice observed and provided it's enforced through strong regulation."


    Still, it appears that few comprehensive studies have been done to investigate the health effects of fracking.  In fact, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Health Impact Project, a comprehensive study can cost as much as $300,000 and can take over a year of work, which has limited the groups who could perform such research.  However, in April 2012, the Institute of Medicine took up the cause, declaring an interest in examining how fracking "poses potential health challenges," which may definitively determine the potential health risks of this practice.  


    That level of research is a big move in the right direction, but the final word on the health impacts of fracking is still to come.


Published On: October 12, 2012