Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health

Fracking for oil and gas poses an impending health crisis in the U.S., two leading groups of health professionals warn in a new report. Not only do existing fracking regulations fail to protect Americans from increased risk of cancer, asthma and birth defects, but there is no evidence fracking can ever be done without threatening public health, according to the authors.  

The report, by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility, pulls together studies, data and news reports on the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas and oil wells. In fracking, a slurry of water, chemicals and sand is injected deep underground at drilling sites. The chemicals and chemical-laced wastewater can contaminate drinking water and send hazardous emissions into the air, endangering people who live nearby, as well as workers at drilling sites. 

One of the report’s authors, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, told Rolling Stone that in her long career as a biologist, environmental writer and advocate, “Fracking is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” She continued:

Those of us in the public health sector started to realize years ago that there were potential risks, then the industry rolled out faster than we could do our science. Now we see those risks have turned into human harms and people are getting sick. And we in this field have a moral imperative to raise the alarm.

The report is the fifth edition of a yearly compendium that details extensive studies on increased risks of cancer, asthma and birth defects for people who live near fracking sites. For example:

  • In 2017, researchers from Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the University of California, Los Angeles found that children born within half a mile of fracked wells have a one-in-four probability of low birth weight and significant declines in average birth weight.
  • In 2014, a study by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health examined data on more than 100,000 births in rural Colorado between 1996 and 2009. They found an association between the the proximity of the mother’s residence to natural gas production sites and an elevated risk of birth defects, such as heart and neural tube defects.

In all, the new report surveyed 1,300 peer-reviewed studies from 2012 through 2017, and found:

  • 69 percent of the water quality studies found potential for or actual water contamination.
  • 87 percent of air quality studies found significant air pollutant emissions.
  • 84 percent of human health studies found signs of harm or indication of potential harm.

FracTracker, a nonprofit that studies and maps fracking nationwide, estimates that there are 1.3 million facilities tied to the fracking industry, including wells, compressor stations and processing plants in the U.S. A peer-reviewed 2017 study by researchers from the nonprofit PSE Healthy Energy, Harvey Mudd College and the University of California, Berkeley estimated that 17.6 million people live within one mile of at least one active oil or gas well, including 1.4 million young children.

The new report says fracking poses significant threats not just to air, water and people’s health, but also to “public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality.” The threat could get worse, it says, because “the current [Trump] administration has announced a new era of ‘energy dominance’ based on surging domestic production—and export—of oil and natural gas, much of it extracted via fracking.”

The report singles out California, saying the risks posed by fracking there are unique. Much less water is used and is not injected as deeply underground as in other areas. But the fracking fluid is more chemically concentrated and more likely to reach groundwater aquifers. California is also the only state that allows oil and gas wastewater disposal in open, unlined pits. 

EWG has been at the forefront of work to bring transparency to fracking and oil and gas regulation in California:

  • EWG reports and advocacy were instrumental in passing landmark legislation in 2013, making California the only state to require comprehensive chemical testing of drilling waste and public disclosure of results.
  • Using the state’s data, in 2015 two EWG investigations revealed just how toxic fracking chemicals and chemical-laced wastewater are, identifying substances linked to cancer, reproductive harm, hormone disruption and other health impacts.

The report’s most disturbing finding is that no amount of regulation can prevent air and water pollution, or the subsequent health impacts, from fracking and other oil and gas infrastructure. To eliminate the public health threat fracking poses, we need not better regulation, but to switch from dirty, dangerous oil and gas to clean, safe renewable energy.

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