Concerned about fracking, Part 1: Air Pollution and Accidents

By Margaret Roberts

In this three-part series on fracking and human health, Margaret Roberts of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer and the New York State Breast Cancer Network explores some of the many reasons health advocates and others are concerned about the combination of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with horizontal drilling, a large-scale industrial practice taking place with increased frequency across the nation. Part 1 here considers air pollution and accidents. Part 2 on “Water Pollution, Radiation, & Drought” discusses how the gas released and chemicals used in fracking increase the potential for water pollution, exposure to radiation, and drought resulting from the huge amounts of water taken for fracking processes that are not then available for agriculture, commercial needs and drinking water. Part 3 on “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and Earthquakes” discusses how certain chemicals used in fracking operations and/or released from shale rock fractures during earthquakes contribute to a host of negative health outcomes including the development of breast cancer. Earlier versions of these articles were published from

Though water pollution resulting from fracking is a major problem, air contamination is perhaps the most dangerous hazard. Fracking releases methane gas, a fossil fuel and potent greenhouse gas that leaks from defects in the cement and steel linings of oil and gas well bores jutting into the ground for sometimes thousands of feet, contributes to climate catastrophe and has negative impacts on health. Fracking pollutes air via three sources: constant truck traffic, well emissions and burn-off, and wastewater storage and disposal. The 24/7 cycle of truck traffic alone – over 1,000 trips to and from the average well pad – emits high levels of diesel exhaust. Several studies have linked exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in diesel exhaust to higher rates of breast cancer; and exposure to PAHs during infancy and in utero raises risk for cancer later in life.

In 2009, the state of Wyoming did not meet federal safety standards for air quality mainly due to fumes containing benzene and toluene emitted from approximately 27,000 wells, most of which were drilled in the past five years. Benzene is a potent carcinogen linked to many cancers, while toluene affects the central nervous system. According to a 2011 US Congressional Report, at least 13 chemicals that cause cancer are used in fracking, and many more fracking fluid chemicals are linked to other disorders including brain damage and birth defects.

A study conducted in 2009 by the Colorado School of Public Health found that people living within a half-mile of a drilling site faced greater health risks, including acute and chronic disorders, than those who lived farther away. In 2010, a Texas hospital system operating in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling in the state reported that it was seeing a 25 percent asthma rate for young children in their catchment area, more than three times the average state rate. Allowing fracking drill pads within 500 feet of homes, farms, and schools will not protect residents’ health.

Residents in Colorado, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Louisiana who live near drilling sites have reported experiencing constant exposure to toxic odors. Both children and adults in these areas complain of serious gastro-intestinal problems, severe headaches, nose bleeds, sinus problems, sore throats, rashes, breathing difficulties, and high blood pressure.

Fracking poses risks to animals too. A 2011 peer-reviewed study published by researchers at the Dept. of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine investigated the health of animals on 24 farms near drilling sites in six states, and found that many animals suffered neurological and reproductive disorders, and acute gastro-intestinal problems. Scores of animals have died.

The extent of environmental pollution, toxicity and health effects may never be fully disclosed because the gas industry lobbied for and got, in some states, “gag orders” imposed on medical professionals (doctors and nurses) that prevent them from sharing information about fracking chemicals with anyone, even their patients who suffer from toxic exposures to these chemicals. The gas industry also got exemptions from key provisions of many federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Superfund Law, Hazardous Waste Regulations, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Toxic Release Inventory under Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know.

Why would gas companies want gag orders from doctors and exemptions from protective laws? Fracking is dangerous, and accidents happen. A lot.

As reported by the “Food and Environment Reporting Network” and The Nation in 2011, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids, with many more likely undisclosed.

Shale Gas Drilling Rig in PA

A shale gas drilling rig in Pennsylvania. Credit: WCN 24/7/flickr

Between 2008 and 2011, Pennsylvania drilling companies reported 2,392 legal violations that posed a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities. In April 2011, a Pennsylvania gas well erupted sending thousands of gallons of toxic and highly saline water into the environment, spilling over containment berms, flowing toward a tributary of a trout-fishing stream, and forcing seven families to evacuate their homes temporarily.

In February, 2013 in Fort Collins, Colorado, fracking fluid spewed from a faulty well for over 30 hours, one of 32 spills in Colorado in the past year from just one gas company. In March, 2014, in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania just one well spewed one quarter of a million gallons of toxic wastewater for several hours. In April, 2014, in Denton, Texas, fracking fluid and gas were released into the air for nearly 5 hours from a drill site only 300 yards away from farms.

In addition to local damage in communities around the country and risks to human health from these accidental spills and releases, is the persistent and irreversible environmental impact of clear-cutting 5-15 acres for drill pads, building processing stations, laying extensive transportation pipes, and turning billions of gallons of a region’s fresh water into toxic industrial waste worth it? Gas production from a single well rapidly declines after the first year. Most wells produce gas that flows actively enough to be profitable or cost-effective for just 5-10 years. Geoscientist David Hughes predicts that oil and gas production from fracking could reach its peak in some places by 2016. The risks and negative impacts long out-live production.

How many people, animals, and ecosystems are local and national leaders willing to sacrifice to gain temporary jobs and temporary fuel production, especially when a good portion of that fuel is likely to be shipped to other countries? The United States currently has a glut of natural gas on the market, and industry reports reveal that future production is destined to be sold to China and Europe. Why not invest in more and safer alternatives? Why should citizens agree to an unsafe industrial process that can damage our health and the environments we leave to future generations? It doesn’t seem like a good trade-off to me.

Margaret Roberts, MFA was one of the founding members of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer (CRAAB!) and its Director for two years, before becoming the Program Coordinator and Director of Development. She was a founding member of the New York State Breast Cancer Network (NYSBCN) and sits on its Environmental Committee.  The first non-profit she started in 1995, Pen & Palette, offered creative art workshops for cancer survivors under its “Coping Through Creativity program.” From 2003 to 2005 the cancer survivors in this program wrote and produced a play about their experiences with cancer entitled, “Alive, Alive, Oh!” Margaret became involved in cancer awareness and advocacy after both of her sisters died from different forms of cancer; one sister (a non-smoker) had lung cancer and her other sister had breast cancer. As a primary caregiver, Margaret became intimately aware of the complexities of breast cancer, and the need for more support and education programs in her community. To advance education about the disease Margaret was the director, co-writer, co-researcher and graphic designer for the True Burden of Breast Cancer Risk Factors Project, a community-based program that educated women’s organizations and over 400 students at six colleges about risk factors for breast cancer, including new information about environmental connections to the disease. Margaret has received numerous grants and awards to advance her work.

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