Inside Energy: Fracking and health, part 1

Prairie Public | Jordan Wirfs-Brock and Leigh Paterson

August 25, 2014
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The oil and gas boom of the 21st century has been fueled - largely -  by a technique called hydraulic fracturing.  Its given access to massive shale gas and oil formations in states like Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. But what’s different about this boom, is that drilling is bumping right up against communities. And people are worried about the health impacts.

The industry has taken off so quickly that scientific research about those impacts is playing catch up.

For Inside Energy, Jordan Wirfs-Brock and Leigh Paterson report. 

When it comes to the health impacts of oil and gas development -. not just fracking..., but all the traffic, noise, and air pollution that goes along with it - why is there so much confusing information out there?  I’m Jordan Wirfs-Brock in Colorado.

And I’m Leigh Paterson in Wyoming.  After spending hours chatting with scientists in the field, we found one of the biggest challenges in researching these health risks is… you guessed it.

“There’s not a lot of funding”
“Funding is absolutely a challenge”  
“There’s time involved to go and get funding”

Funding is always in short supply. But for people who study something as controversial as oil and gas drilling, they also have to worry about where the money comes from.

Hello this is nadia

I reached Nadia Steinzor at her office in upstate New York.  She’s a health researcher at an advocacy group called EarthWorks.

(SOUNDBITE 1 Nadia Steinzor )
You know, I suppose academic institutions face a huge challenge of not becoming what’s been coined recently as ‘frackademia.’

That’s a clever but not so nice name for researchers whose work is paid for by the oil and gas industry. Scientists who study this topic are hyper-aware of their reputations.

John Adgate is with the Colorado School of Public Health.  His work is NOT paid for by the industry, and he has basically read every one of the hundreds of studies on this subject.

I asked him what it’s like to work on something so controversial:

(SOUNDBITE 1 John Adgate)
It poses lots of challenges and you’re right, I don’t want to a lot elaborate on that.

Here’s a few other challenges: To study the real impacts of drilling, you kinda need to know what your air and water quality looked like before the well went in: Scientists call this baseline testing.  And, because we don’t have a time machine, it’s hard to understand the effects of drilling without having done these tests first.

And pollutants don’t affect everyone the same way: To study, say, birth defects in babies born near drill sites, you would need to have a lot of information about the mother. John Adgate again:

 (SOUNDBITE 2 John Adgate )
“Things about their diet, their prenatal care and all sorts of other stuff.”  

For researchers, understanding these risks requires being a little bit of a stalker.

 (SOUNDBITE 1 John Adgate )
“The unsexy part of public health is following people over time. Its called tracking or sometimes its a little more creepily called surveillance.”

This type of surveillance can take years, and it’s a necessary step in figuring out exposure.    

In other words: how much of the risky stuff that we know is in the air and water is actually getting into someone's body. To do this, researchers measure dust, or a toxin like benzene, at a work site, and figure out how far it can travel.  All of this is hard work:  

John Adgate
“So, you need knowledge about what’s going on at the well pad.”

Which means getting the drilling companies to cooperate…. Not always easy!

John Adgate
“You need to have a lot of relatively expensive equipment arrayed around the site for”

And there’s not just one source of risk. There’s an entire drilling infrastructure - trucks, pipelines, condenser tanks, dusty roads, plus everyday pollution. Which makes it hard to figure out the relationship between a risk and an actual health problem.

So, just because two things happen at the same time - like a child living near a natural gas well and getting respiratory problems - doesn’t mean one caused the other. Although it could have.

But researchers are making progress and we actually know a lot - just not enough.

(John Adgate)
 Its a field where you’re trying to keep people out of the hospital.  So, I mean, public health is all about prevention. This is, from a research standpoint, a really challenging problem.

In part 2 of this series … We’ll go over what we know about how drilling can affect your health - along with what we don’t know - and how researchers are working to fill in those gaps.

 For Inside Energy, I’m Jordan Wirfs-Brock and I’m Leigh Paterson.

Tagged with: north dakota, health, fracking

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