Science Pick: Is Fracking the New Tobacco?

Nancy Myers
Science & Environmental Health Network and 
the CHE and SEHN Cumulative Impacts Project

The public health consequences of large-scale natural gas extraction by hydrofracturing are all but unstudied. Regulation and permitting has been left to the states because Congress has exempted the process from regulation under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. States have all but ignored public health consequences in permitting decisions. And given the protection of formulae for fracking fluids as confidential business information, gauging present and potential health effects is extremely challenging.

Nevertheless, two scientists, Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, have issued a preliminary study of what scientists might learn if they could conduct thorough analyses of the health impact of fracking. Their study, Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health, was published in New Solutions, Vol. 22(1) 51-77, 2012 and may be accessed on the Cumulative Impacts Project website.

Here are some excerpts:

“The large-scale use of chemicals with significant toxicity has given rise to a great deal of public concern, and an important aspect of the debate concerns the level of proof required to associate an environmental change with activities associated with gas drilling. Environmental groups typically invoke the precautionary principle. That is, if an action is suspected of causing harm to the environment, then in the absence of a scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on the individual or organization taking the action.. . .

“Clear health risks are present in gas drilling operations. These cannot be eliminated but can be decreased by commonsense reforms. . . . Our study illustrates not only several possible links between gas drilling and negative health effects, but also the difficulties associated with conducting careful studies of such a link. Simple commonsense policy reforms could facilitate the collection of data that would lead to a careful assessment of the health consequences of gas drilling on both humans and animals.”

“The oil and gas industry has typically . . . approached the issue in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer. That is, if one cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt that an environmental impact is due to drilling, then a link is rejected. This approach by the tobacco companies had a devastating and long-lasting effect on public health from which we have still not recovered, and we believe that a similar approach to the impacts of gas drilling may have equally negative consequences.”

“Animals, especially livestock, are sensitive to the contaminants released into the environment by drilling and by its cumulative impacts. Documentation of cases in six states strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife. Although the lack of complete testing of water, air, soil and animal tissues hampers thorough analysis of the connection between gas drilling and health, policy changes could assist in the collection of more complete data sets and also partially mitigate the risk to humans and animals. Without complete studies, given the many apparent adverse impacts on human and animal health, a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health. In states that nevertheless allow this process, the use of commonsense measures to reduce the impact on human and animals must be required in addition to full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans.”

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