EARTHWORKS

Fracking for Natural Gas Fuels Health Worries

The boom in hydraulic fracturing for natural gas raises medical worries for a number of female health activists and researchers.

Women's E News | Molly Ginty

April 22, 2013
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Creeping over the darkened hills of Concord Township, Ohio, past oak and maple trees and through an open window, the intruder entered Kari Matsko's home without a sound.

"It was only when I woke the next morning that I realized something had changed," says Matsko. "I had unexplained muscle spasms and terrible neck pain. I saw three doctors, and spent four months recovering. Then a neighbor told me about the 3 a.m. hydrogen sulfide gas leak from a nearby fracking operation that sent her whole family to the emergency room with aches and pains the same day I got sick in 2006."

Now heading a grassroots group called The People's Oil and Gas Collaborative of Ohio, Matsko is among the growing number of women who are fighting health problems associated with hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a drilling process that harvests natural gas from rock.

"When I found out why I fell ill, I thought 'How could residents not be notified there was fracking nearby? How could this even be legal?'" says Matsko. "Because oversight is lax and studies are sparse, I'm still asking the same questions today."

Loosely regulated, recently spread to 34 states and generating a reported $76 billion in annual revenues, fracking is linked to health problems that are of particular concern to women. Female activists are lobbying for congressional legislation that could help protect their neighborhood environments and their health.

During fracking, engineers drill horizontal wells along vertical shafts in shale, limestone, and sandstone. As they pump chemically treated water into these wells, pressure builds up and opens fractures that contain natural gas formed millennia ago by organic matter decomposing in the rock. Now ready to escape, the natural gas whooshes to the surface, where it can be harvested for energy.

Massive Energy Potential
Since 2007, reports the U.S. Energy Administration, the rapid spread of fracking has quadrupled the extraction of natural gas from shale wells, and boosted U.S. natural gas production by 26 percent. Geologists estimate that just one source (the Marcellus Shale formation, below Matsko's residence and stretching from western Ohio to western New York) contains enough gas to power U.S. households for 50 years.

Since natural gas emits a quarter to half as much carbon dioxide as coal, it is cleaner fuel than other fossil-fuel alternatives. It is cheaper to harvest and creates much-needed jobs.

Even so, it brings pollution. The fluid used (between 1 and 7 million gallons per well) contains synthetic chemicals that dissolve minerals and prop open fractures so natural gas can escape. But up to 85 percent of this fluid can remain below ground after drilling, or can return to the surface along with radioactive elements, high concentrations of subterranean salt or brine, and natural but toxic gases such as hydrogen sulfide and methane, which is combustible and contributes to global warming.

Since fracking introduces more than 600 chemicals into the soil, air and water--and since "flowback" fluid contains toxic substances from underground--this procedure can trigger health woes, especially in cases of accidents, leaks or sustained exposure.

"When fracking came to our area years ago, we were thrilled because we thought our community could help make energy use sustainable," says Lisa Beck of Claysburg, Pa. "My husband worked for the industry until he fell ill with joint pain and breathing trouble. Now, I have the same problems, plus headaches, fatigue, dizziness, burning eyes, and a 'frack rash' that covers half my body."

These ailments, along with asthma, loss of appetite, neuropathy, immune disorders, and unexplained cancer, have been on Theo Colborn's radar during the decade plus that she has studied the health impacts of fracking.

Studying Toxic Cocktail
"A mixture of chemicals is causing these problems," says Colborn, founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colo. "Scientists are working to pinpoint the cocktail's effects at different exposure levels over time."

Industry groups claim synthetic chemicals are just 0.5 to 2 percent of fracturing fluid's volume. Scientists counter that these substances are used in undisclosed amounts that harm human health even at low doses. And a 2004 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study found fracking chemicals can be injected at up to 13,000 times the acceptable concentrations in drinking water.

In 2011, Colborn published a study examining 353 chemicals used in natural gas operations. She found that half can affect the kidneys or the cardiovascular, nervous or immune systems; 37 percent can affect hormones; and 25 percent are carcinogenic.

Other research is exploring individual chemicals' effects. An October 2012 study by the D.C. nonprofit Earthworks tied benzene in fracking to headaches, dizziness and eye irritation; perchlorethylene to rashes and trembling; and carbon tetrachlorine to nausea and kidney disease. "Overall, we found a 60 percent correlation between exposure to chemicals and health problems," says co-author Nadia Steinzor.

Symptoms differ depending on whether people handle chemicals directly, live near drilling (which can be 150 feet from homes) or are downwind and miles away.

Health problems can also vary within households. "My husband, son and I all live in a house a mile away from 50 fracking wells operating since 2006," says Kim Feil of Arlington, Texas. "I've had aching joints and ringing ears, while my son has had headaches and my husband was just diagnosed with cancer in his lymph nodes."

Feil also links her irregular periods (and possible early menopause) to the exposure.

Multiple Hazards at Drilling Sites
Feil is convinced these problems are associated with fracking and what happens before and after it. "Fracking is only one of several activities at drilling sites that can affect human health," says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. "Trucks and machines are powered by diesel fuel that releases particular matter and can cause breathing and heart problems. Silica, used in 'proppants' [materials that hold the cracks open], can be transported without being properly enclosed and can cause lung disease when inhaled."

Other women living near drilling sites also worry about medical dangers.

"Females are more prone than males to the allergies, immune disorders and neurological problems associated with this practice," says Colborn.

Scientists have identified 130 "endocrine disruptors" in drilling operations. These chemicals can wreak havoc with hormones and trigger reproductive problems like those already reported in animals. Near fracking sites in Pennsylvania, calves were stillborn, while in North Dakota, cows quit producing milk for their calves.

A 2012 Cornell University study found that a mother's exposure to fracking before birth boosts the incidence of low birth weight by 25 percent.

Steinzor notes that fracking may be linked to miscarriages and breast cancer in Texas, though studies on this have been inconclusive.

Forthcoming research by the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., is slated to examine pregnancy outcomes along with asthma and other common problems.

"Cause and effect are the big questions," says Madelon Finkel, a public health professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. "The fracking boom is rather recent, but related health conditions can take years to develop. We need better-designed, more comprehensive studies to assess long-term problems using statistical means."

Research Funding Needed
Finkel has designed a fracking health survey and hopes to distribute it in Pennsylvania. But like other researchers studying natural gas drilling, she needs more funding. Fracking studies are rarely supported by the government, but instead by a patchwork of foundations, academic institutions and private donors.

Activists from Mothers for Sustainable Energy in New Jersey, the Mothers Project in Pennsylvania, and other groups say the medical implications of fracking are understudied because authorities have been swayed by big business--and by the energy and savings potential of natural gas--to turn a blind eye to health problems.

During congressional hearings in 2005, a spokesman for the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC, based in Oklahoma City) assured legislators that fracking is "adequately regulated by the states and needs no further study."

Shortly afterward, then-Vice President Dick Cheney (former CEO of Halliburton, the energy company that popularized the high-volume fracking process) pushed an energy bill through Congress that exempted the natural-gas industry from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERLA or the "superfund" bill).

Fracking oversight was consigned to individual states, where laws are mixed. In Pennsylvania, for instance, 2011 regulations require drillers to recycle 90 percent of briny water by using it to frack more shale. But when drillers are done with "frack water," they are allowed to dispose of it by dumping it into Pennsylvania's rivers.

Nationwide, more than 250 communities have passed fracking bans and 35 states have created fracking regulations.

Even so, just seven states have audited their rules. And a 2011 investigation by the D.C.-based Greenwire found 40 percent of state regulators have ties to industry.

"State laws give us incomplete information about what pollutants are being emitted and whether water, soil and air have been contaminated," says Rotkin-Ellman. "In many cases, we aren't even sure what we should be testing for."

New York State is bucking this trend. It has held a five-year moratorium on fracking while officials weigh proposed health safeguards.

On the federal level, there are also signs of change.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency issued rules in April 2012 that require fracking's gaseous byproducts to be stored in tanks instead of released into air.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has pledged to revise its rules on natural gas drilling, 20 percent of which is done on public land. In May 2012, it unveiled preliminary rules requiring disclosure of chemicals. Industry lobbyists balked. And fracking opponents condemned DOI's recommendation that disclosure come after and not before fracking. A DOI official told Women's eNews that at some point in 2013, the DOI will issue a final rule that ensures "cost-effective safety and environmental protection."

In February 2013, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) introduced the Climate Protection Act, which would heighten chemical disclosure and end fracking's exemption from the Safe Water Drinking Act.

In March 2013, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) introduced two bills that would require fracking to be regulated the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts: the "Bringing Reductions to Energy's Airborne Toxic Health Effect (BREATHE) Act," and the "Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydraulic Environmental Regulation (FRESHER) Act."

Researchers say stronger legislation is essential. "It only takes 30 or 40 hours to complete fracking," says Colborn. "But when you open that hole, you can have health problems for the next 30 to 40 years."

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