Health concerns put shale gas exploration in spotlight

By Tierney Smith

Fracking involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into the rocks at high pressure (Copyright K A/

Pressure is growing on the Shale gas industry to “push the pause button” on exploration following a growing consensus in the medical community that the potential health impacts of gas exploration have not been addressed.

Delegates at a conference this week held by the Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) and the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment (MACCHE), called on government to halt the rapid expansion of Hydraulic fracturing – more commonly known as ‘fracking’ – while research into its effects is carried out.

Adam Law, MD, from Weill Cornell Medical College, and a founding member of PSE said: “The industry keeps saying there is no evidence of any pathway of exposure. That’s not good enough. Your have to go out and do the studies. There is a growing understanding that public health is being effected.”

Fracking involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into the rocks at high pressure to release the natural gas trapped within them.

It has faced criticism over potential air and water contamination – both from what is pumped into the ground and what is released during the process, either through venting or flow-back water, which includes methane and carcinogenic chemicals.

There are over 26,000 fracking wells across 16 states in the USA, with some reports suggesting the States has enough gas underground to last the next century.

It’s a growing industry across the world, despite recent earthquakes in the US and in the UK  being attributed to exploration.

Health complaints near wells

The US gas industry says it does everything possible to ensure safety and address public health in all of its operations, and the water allows small fissures to release the natural gas from targeted sections of the shale rock and within a self contained system.

Dan Whitten from America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), which represents companies from across the US, said: “ANGA companies take seriously the responsibility of ensuring the safety of our operations.

“Extraordinary precautions are taken to protect workers, the people of the communities we work in and the environment. In addition, extensive federal and state regulations are in place to address public health and safety.

“Hydraulic fracturing has been used to develop natural gas for more than six decades and this technology accounts for a quarter of all the energy we use in this country. The conclusions drawn by these individuals are not sustained by either history or the broader science of natural gas development.

While the process of fracking has been used for decades, the current method of horizontal fracturing is newer.

While the industry assures critics that there should be no increased risk,  the medical community is less convinced.

Some of the health complaints associated with proximity to the fracking wells  are skin problems, rashes, respiratory problems and the use of carcinogenic chemicals and their links to cancer.

Medical experts are calling for more research into these areas.

Following a 2005 decision to remove the fracking process from US Federal Regulation, legislation on fracking is formed on a state-by-state basis. For example the extraction of the Marcellus Shale in New York State is currently undergoing an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Law, from the PSE, warns that in some states this is not a requirement, and even in New York State, the health impacts are little considered in the report. He says this must change, and believes the way forward is by building a consortium of experts who can provide country-wide research.

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This has been welcomed by the American Public Health Association (APHA). Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the APHA said: “APHA believe the potential harmful consequences of shale gas exploration to the public’s health are too great and uncertain.

“We strongly agree with the call that the public health effects of shale gas must be examined before the industry continues to expand in the US.

“Further research will help provide desperately needed answers for which we still have questions. We cannot afford to jeopardize the public’s health for the sake of the industry’s bottom line.”

Jake Rubbin from the American Gas Association says that the industry does understans the importance of engaing with the public on issues of gas exploration.

“While AGA is not an advocate for natural gas producers directly, the association recognizes the benefits of a strong domestic production position to local gas utilities and natural gas consumers,” he said.

The AGA’s principles include a commitment to operational standards ensuring safe, environmentally sound, sustainable natural gas resources, together with public disclosure.

Law claims improvements have been made in this area, with more companies now reporting the chemicals they are using in the fracking process.

He believes there is much further to go to fully understand the potential impacts of the industry.

“We need to push the pause button so we don’t get deeper into this and do more damage,” he said.

Contact the author on [email protected] or @rtcc_tierney.

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