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Fracking: Sometimes a Great Notion Fails

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The economy of nature is not money, it is life.  ~Vandana Shiva, PhD

     According to a research article just published in Science Advances, the growth in unconventional gas production involving hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is suggested by many to transform the energy landscape: reduce energy prices, decrease conventional air pollution by displacing coal in electricity generation, disrupt international energy trading arrangements, and increase the prospects for energy self-sufficiency for the United States.

However, at the same time, continuing concerns about the possible local health effects of hydraulic fracturing have led states including New York and Maryland, and many other countries to ban the practice altogether. And, the absence of a systematic evaluation of fracking’s health effects has complicated the decision-making process for those governments around the world that are debating whether to allow hydraulic fracturing.

The fracking process, according to the American Geosciences Institute, opens narrow cracks in rock layers in order to allow oil, gas, or water to flow through the rock. During hydraulic fracturing, pressurized fluid is injected through a well into a subsurface rock layer in order to open the fractures. It requires large volumes of water mixed with chemicals and proppants (often sand, used to "prop" open the fractures). The fluids must be recycled or disposed of in deep wells, separate from local water tables.

The process has been suggested to negatively affect human health through several channels, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. As of this week, there are 116 peer-reviewed, science-based articles on identified or potential health risks linked to fracking and fracking wastewater listed in the National Library of Medicine. Therefore, the first alarming large-scale, recently published study is discussed in today's Friday Pearl. 

Fracking linked to low-weight babies in Pennsylvania

To evaluate the potential health impacts of fracking, researchers from Princeton University, led by health economist Janet Currie, PhD, and colleagues from University of Chicago and University of California, analyzed records of more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013, comparing infants born to mothers living at different distances from active fracking sites and those born both before and after fracking was initiated at each site. 

Adjustments for fixed maternal determinants of infant health by comparing siblings who were and were not exposed to fracking sites in utero were made.

Negative health effects of in utero exposure to fracking sites were identified within 3 km (1.89 miles) of a mother’s residence, with the largest health impacts seen for in utero exposure within 1 km (0.62 miles) of fracking sites. The negative health impacts include a greater incidence of low-birth-weight babies, as well as significant declines in average birth weight an several other measures of infant health.

There was little evidence for health effects at distances beyond 3 km, suggesting that health impacts of fracking are highly local. Informal estimates suggest that about 29,000 of the nearly 4 million annual U.S. births occur within 1 km of an active fracking site, with 25 percent of those births at higher risk of poor birth outcomes.

Sadly, according to the study's conclusion, information based on large administrative databases has consistently shown that low birth weight is a risk factor for numerous negative outcomes, including infant mortality, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, lower test scores, lower schooling attainment, lower earnings, and higher rates of social welfare program participation.

Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton,MD,  David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff


FRACTRACKER reported that 34 US states now have active oil and gas activity in the US, based on 2016 analysis. In our state of Colorado alone, they reported more than 50,000 active oil and gas wells, as of May 2017.

According to the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the folks responsible for the sound operation of the 2.7 million miles of pipeline transportation in the US, "There is a fatality every 25 days, an injury every six days, and an explosion every 11 days."  

The American Geosciences Institute website features a short-film produced by Maryland Public Television that weighs the economic benefits and the health risks of fracking, which remind us that the actual practice of hydraulic fracturing is only a small part of the overall process of drilling, completing, and producing an oil and gas well. 

Other environmental issues linked to the process include: water availability, spills of chemicals at the surface, impacts of sand mining for use in the fracturing process, surface water quality degradation from waste fluid disposal, groundwater quality degradation, induced seismicity from the injection of waste fluids into deep disposal wells, reduced air quality including higher CO2 and methane emissions than previously reported, noise, night sky pollution, and landscape changes such as forest fragmentation and disruption to wildlife corridors and habitats.

An article by a distinguished and well-published Cornell University Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor, Robert Howarth, PhD, in the open access research journal, Energy and Emission Control Technologies is a must read, particularly the conclusion: Methane emissions and climatic warming risk from hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development: implications for policy.

Clean energy looks better every day.