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Public Health and Fracking

There are a number of public health issues related to fracking. Fracking chemicals are linked to cancer, as well as gastrointestinal, circulatory, respiratory, developmental, and neurological disorders. Storage, treatment and disposal of contaminated water can be a source of human exposure to chemical carcinogens and their precursors.1 Fracking chemicals have polluted drinking water and air. Other sources of exposure include air pollution from truck traffic and diesel fumes. There are also concerns about worker safety and social impacts from a large influx of gas company workers.

Water quality and usage

There have been numerous incidents of drinking water contamination from drilling and fracking operations, mostly involving households using private drinking-water wells. There have been reports of nosebleeds, headaches, and skin lesions in residents living near or drinking well water from near fracking facilities. Drinking water can be contaminated through:

Methane migration:  A 2011 study found that private drinking-water wells had on average methane levels  17 times higher near drilling sites, compared to those in non-drilling sites.2  High levels of methane in drinking water can create risks for household explosions and asphyxiation.

Spills and leaks of fracking chemicals and fluids: Water contamination has occurred from methane migration, chemical spills, leaks from wastewater holding pits, gasoline and diesel by-products, and radioactive elements brought up from deep underground by the fracking process.3 These chemicals present risks for neurotoxicity, reproductive problems and cancer.4 It is important to note that it can be challenging for healthcare providers to learn what specific chemicals are used in a fracking mixture, because gas companies claim proprietary rights on the chemical mixtures used.

Radiation: Naturally occurring radioactive particles, such as radium, barium, and radon, may be brought to the surface in fracking wastewater. Wastewater tests in Pennsylvania and New York found levels 3,600 times more radioactive than federal limits for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than Nuclear Regulatory Agency limits for nuclear plant discharge.5 Radiation is a known carcinogen.

Mismanagement of Fracking Waste:  Wastewater from fracking operations contains hydrocarbons, heavy metals, salts, and naturally occurring radioactive material. Wastewater may also be reused in another well, re-injected underground, stored in holding pits, or transported to a treatment facility. Each of these activities carries its own inherent risks, including spills, leaks, earthquakes (in the case of underground injection) and threats to groundwater and surface water. Municipal water treatment facilities are not equipped to handle fracking wastewater.

Water consumption:  Large volumes of water used in fracking, up to 5 million gallons per well, can depleted local water supplies. Contaminated by salts, chemicals and radiation,  much of the water is permanently removed from the ecosystem when it is injected into deep wells or housed in huge wastewater holding pits for disposal. At a time when much of the U.S. is experiencing drought conditions, this is a tragic waste of our most valuable natural resource.

Air quality

There are several sources of air pollution from drilling and fracking operations. Air emissions from shale drilling, gas processing, gas escapes, and diesel exhaust negatively impact air quality. Hazardous air emissions include methane, hydrogen sulfide, elevated particulate matter (PM 2.5) and VOC’s (ozone precursors) such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and mixed xylenes.6 Ground-level ozone is associated with reduced lung function and exacerbations of asthma and emphysema, while elevated PM is responsible for increased incidences of asthma, cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, premature death in people with preexisting cardiac or respiratory disease, infant mortality, and cancer.7-12 Those at greatest risk are those with preexisting pulmonary disease, children due to their more rapid breathing rate and developing lungs and immune systems, and pregnant women because of an increased risk of pre-term labor and delivery of a low birth weight infant.13,14

Worker Safety

Due to the nature of fracking there is the potential for a number of occupational hazards. These include exposure to an unknown mixture of fracking chemicals and inhalation hazards from silica dust.  Inhalation of silica dust is associated with silicosis, a pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.18 Worker exposure to neurotoxins may impair their job performance and increase likelihood of on the job injuries. Temporary workers are also common in this industry and they may not familiar with the hazards present or the need for protective equipment. The fatality rates in the oil and gas industry are seven times higher than the national average across all industries.19


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  19. Urbina, Ian. “Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road.” The New York Times: New York 14 May 2014: n. pag. Web. 8 May 2013.