Fracking Continues to Expand Rapidly Despite New Evidence of Health Risks

Another public interest report has confirmed that shale gas extraction is creating new public health risks. However, the fracking boom grows unabated, and drilling is occurring near schools and other locations. This could lead to increased chemical exposures among children and other vulnerable populations.

Natural gas fracking is an extraction process in which a well is drilled and sand and fluids are pumped underground at very high pressure to cause fissures in the shale rock that contains methane gas. Every well drilled brings an increase in air and noise pollution, as drilling equipment, water, sand, and chemicals are trucked in and gas is piped out of local communities. New studies confirm that fracking is linked to contaminated groundwater, air pollution, and health problems in animals and humans.

Public Health Impacts in the Marcellus Shale

The Marcellus Shale is a geological formation that runs through parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Exploration and extraction of natural gas from the shale formation has been expanding rapidly in recent years. According to state records, more than 3,000 natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past two years, mostly in the Marcellus Shale. This number will continue to increase, as Pennsylvania has issued almost 2,000 permits for natural gas fracking since January 2012.

According to a new report released on Oct. 18 by Earthworks, this expansion has led to increasingly negative health impacts to residents living near these wells. The report, Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania, surveyed 108 residents across 14 Pennsylvania counties and conducted air and water tests at more than half of the 55 households surveyed. The report documented that dangerous carcinogenic chemicals associated with fracking are present in the air and water in communities where the drilling occurs. These chemicals include benzene (a known carcinogen), toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and other harmful substances, which are associated with many of the health symptoms reported in the surveys.

After gas drilling began, residents in these communities developed new health problems, known to be related to exposure to these chemicals. Respondents reported nasal and throat irritation, burning eyes, breathing difficulties, nausea, joint pain, and frequent nosebleeds. Close to 70 percent of participants surveyed reported an increase in throat irritation, and almost 80 percent have had more sinus problems after being exposed to natural gas extraction.

Those living closer to gas wells reported higher rates and greater severity of symptoms. For instance, when residents were 1,500-4,000 feet away from facilities, 27 percent reported throat irritation; this increased to 63 percent at 501-1,500 feet, and 74 percent at less than 500 feet. Children living near gas development developed health problems "atypical in the young," such as severe headaches, joint pain, and forgetfulness. Children living closest to oil and gas facilities had the highest occurrence of frequent nosebleeds of all the age groups surveyed.

Though this report focused specifically on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and the small communities affected by the extraction process, "the process for all shale gas extraction is very similar and so it has the same potential impacts on any community," said Wilma Subra, the president of Subra Company, an environmental consulting firm.

Implications for Other Communities

Despite confirmation of these serious health impacts, recent news reports indicate that fracking continues to expand and is now being conducted at unexpected locations. This could lead to additional populations being exposed to fracking chemicals and emissions.

For example, many states are allowing fracking in state parks. Ohio has proposed guidelines for drilling in state parks, requiring that companies stay at least 300 feet (the length of a football field) from campgrounds, waterways, and historical sites. Cemetery owners have begun leasing their mineral rights to oil and gas companies to allow fracking. Chesapeake Energy has worked with more than a dozen cemeteries in the Fort Worth region of Texas alone. It is unclear how or if these arrangements will protect the health of those who visit the gravesites of their deceased loved ones or if visitors will even be informed about potential exposures.

Drilling is also occurring near schools. In July, the Encana Corporation began drilling across the street from an elementary school and within a mile of two secondary schools in Erie, CO. The drilling sites' proximity to the schools sparked numerous protests and petitions from local residents and parents because children are particularly susceptible to health problems from pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Universities are also leasing their land to fracking companies. The University of Texas, which allows natural gas well pads on campus, approved the installation one of a well just 400 feet away from a daycare center at its Arlington campus. As a result, the daycare center moved. Houston-based Carrizo Oil & Gas, Inc. has drilled more than 20 natural gas wells on the campus and has provided $1.12 million for construction of a new daycare facility.

Texas isn't the only state where drilling is moving forward on college grounds. Last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) signed the Indigenous Mineral Resource Development Act (Senate Bill 367), which allows 14 of the state's public universities to execute contracts with gas and oil companies to allow fracking on university lands. The law will also allow oil drilling and coal mining on university property. Advocates at Delaware Riverkeeper and other organizations are concerned that such activities will put the health and well-being of Pennsylvania college students at risk.

Rules are Inadequate to Protect Public Health

As a companion Watcher article discusses, two reports released last month (one from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and one from Earthworks) concluded that federal and state rules on fracking do not protect citizens from the health impacts of oil and gas drilling. GAO found that federal and state regulators are unable to keep pace with rapidly expanding shale oil and gas development, and Earthworks noted that states are inadequately enforcing the rules that they do have on the books.

The reports' findings confirm those reported by OMB Watch in July. OMB Watch found that while state governments have begun establishing disclosure rules for fracking, they are spotty and incomplete, and essential safeguards are missing.


Though the GAO report fails to provide recommendations for federal and state regulators, the Earthworks reports offer several practical recommendations to strengthen public protections. The primary recommendation is for states to refuse to permit new gas development until they can "assure affected communities that they" fully understand the public health risks and "have taken all necessary steps to prevent those health risks."

Similar to what the OMB Watch report recommended in July, Earthworks asserts that states should conduct health impact assessments on gas development, develop new measurements for testing air and water quality, and strengthen regulations.

To strengthen enforcement, Earthworks recommends that states establish a minimum inspector-to-well ratio and annual inspection-per-well requirements for each stage of development. States should also establish formal notice-of-violation procedures to use when rules are broken and ensure penalties are significant enough to deter violations. States should also document the violations consistently and make this information available to the public.

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