Study: No more studies, we already know fracking impacts exist

After studying hundreds of scientific articles about the health impacts of fracking, researchers say, “We already know these health impacts exist, and there’s already more than enough evidence for policymakers to take action.”

Environmental Health Concerns From Unconventional Natural Gas Development (UNGD)

The report was published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health in February. Researchers included scientifically valid studies conducted over the past decade that focused on the community and health impacts of fracking. The study catalogs all reliable, existing evidence that shows fracking’s impact on health, water, and climate change.

Impacts on human health

Irena Gorski, co-author and an environmental epidemiology doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, summarized the study’s findings for Environmental Health News:

“What we found pushes back against the narratives we often hear that say we don’t know enough about the health impacts yet. We have enough evidence at this point that these health impacts should be of serious concern to policymakers interested in protecting public health.”

Oil & gas operations have been shown to cause water pollution, air pollution, and soil contamination. These are linked to adverse health impacts from exposure to toxic chemicals released during all phases of operations including drilling, fracking, unloading and more. Chronic stress and anxiety are also serious health concerns caused by the increased light, noise, and truck traffic that can cause long-term health impacts.

Researchers found plenty of documented health impacts. But Gorski said the impacts of most concern are the negative impacts on pregnancy and birth outcomes.

“We were looking for repeat findings and there are six studies on birth outcomes, which each found associations between adverse outcomes and unconventional natural gas development,” Gorski said.

The evidence shows a correlation between women living near fracking operations and increased odds of having a high-risk pregnancy, having a baby with lower-than-average birth weight, or having a baby with a low infant health index.

Researchers also took pains to investigate the metrics of each study they reviewed including:

  • Proximity of wells to residents;
  • Phase of operations at the well pad at the time of the study, e.g. active drilling, fracking, or producing well;
  • Likelihood that non-fracking activities impacted the study’s findings.

Gorski explained, “In these epidemiological studies, researchers do a lot to control for bias and consider all the confounding factors that could lead them to find false associations, and they adjust for them to minimize the impact on their findings. Basically, they’re trying to see if their findings go away if they eliminate certain factors. In the studies we included, they’re finding that they don’t, which adds to the evidence that this is a concern for public health.”

According to the researchers, it’s still too early to study health impacts like cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases, because they take a long time to develop.

[Credit: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public]

Impacts on water

Researchers found scientific evidence that operations associated with drilling and fracking can impact drinking water in several ways:

  • Withdrawing water during times and/or areas of low water availability;
  • Onsite spills of large volumes or high chemicals concentrations of produced water and other fluids;
  • Injecting fracking fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity;
  • Injecting fracking fluids directly into groundwater;
  • Untreated fracking wastewater discharged into surface waters;
  • Fracking wastewater disposed of or stored in unlined pits and leaching into groundwater.

Risks to water resources from UNGD activity also include the contamination of shallow aquifers with fugitive hydrocarbon gases and the accumulation of toxic and radioactive elements in soil or stream sediments near disposal or spill sites. Specific contaminants found in water include BTEX (butane, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), plus salts and metals (including mercury, bromide, iodide, and ammonium). All of which are linked to adverse health impacts.

Impacts on climate change

Researchers also found surprising evidence of the industry’s effect on climate change.

Gorski said, “As a fossil fuel, natural gas extraction and use is contributing to climate change, of course, but before conducting this study, I didn’t realize the amount of evidence we have that it may be even worse than coal.”

The problem occurs with fugitive methane emissions from pipelines and tanks used to transport and store natural gas. Researchers say evidence suggests that the industry’s methane emissions well exceed 3 percent which means natural gas has a greater impact on climate change than coal.

Gorksi added, “We included this in our study because climate change has its own contributions to health impacts. These indirect impacts will take longer to appear than the direct health impacts, but they have the potential to be significant.”

Health impacts from climate change include increases in:

  • Heat-related illnesses and deaths
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Insect-borne diseases
  • Mental health issues from forced migration and civil conflict
  • Illnesses and deaths caused by extreme weather events

A separate study found that ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, disproportionately live near fracking wells. The demographics of fracking: A spatial analysis for four U.S. states uses data on the geographic location of fracking wells in four U.S. states — Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The study will be published in the Ecological Economics journal in July 2019.

Instead of requiring more studies to prove fracking’s negative impacts, Gorski believes we should require studies that provide evidence of the industry’s societal benefits in order to determine if the pace of expansion is worth the price we pay as a society.

“Some people are pushing for new studies on exactly how exposure happens in order to believe the evidence that these health impacts exist,” Gorski said. “That’s something scientists can potentially tease out, but we already know these health impacts exist, and I think there’s already more than enough evidence for policymakers to take action.”

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