A Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill stands at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. The process is controversial with critics who say it could poison water supplies, while the natural-gas industry says it's been used safely for decades. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The link between fracking and health issues

Marketplace Contributor Nov 15, 2017
A Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill stands at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. The process is controversial with critics who say it could poison water supplies, while the natural-gas industry says it's been used safely for decades. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency has allowed a series of chemicals with known health concerns to be used in oil and gas drilling known as fracking, according to documents obtained by Marketplace. 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, residents filed 9,000 complaints about drilling pollution and well problems from 2004 to 2016.

While no medical diagnoses have been revealed to be caused directly by these oil and gas drilling chemicals, cause and effect can be difficult to prove.

Chemical identities are largely unknown, and disease and causality can take years to show up in the data. Several studies do show a link between living by a well near a fracking site and high rates of cancer, asthma, high-risk pregnancies and heart defects.

Here are a series of studies looking at the potential links that exist.

1) Air pollution caused by fracking may lead to health problems for those who live near natural gas drilling sites. The study, which looked at wells in Garfield County, Colorado, says this is due to the exposure of potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. Those who live closer to wells are at a higher risk of cancer, according to the study.

2) Another study out of Colorado looked at the connection between certain birth defects and the proximity of mothers to natural gas developments. The researchers found an association between those who lived within a 10-mile radius of these areas and congenital heart defects and possibly neural tube defects. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, about 26 percent of the roughly 47,0000 oil and gas wells in the state are located within 150-1,000 feet of a home or “building intended for human occupancy.”

3) The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a five-year scientific study of fracking’s effect on U.S. drinking water. The report documented 457 spills related to fracking between 2006 and 2012, and in 324 of those cases, spills reached soil, surface water or groundwater. The agency emphasized directly in drafts that fracking had contaminated water in some areas. While one released version of the report downplayed this connection — stating that fracking has not led to “widespread, systemic impacts” — the EPA later reversed that conclusion.

4) A study of drinking-water wells near fracking sites in Pennsylvania found elevated levels of methane, ethane and propane gases. About 82 percent of drinking water samples contained methane, with concentrations six times higher for homes within 1 km of natural gas wells than homes farther away.

5) Researchers examined the data on more than 10,000 births in north and central Pennsylvania from 2009 to 2013. It found that mothers living in the most active fracking areas were 40 percent more likely to give birth prematurely, and 30 percent more likely to have their pregnancy labeled high-risk.

6) Another study on fracking for gas and oil in Pennsylvania found that those who live near such activity have a higher likelihood of being hospitalized for cardiac, neurological, urological, cancer-related and skin-related problems.

7) A group of mothers who lived closest to a high density of fracking wells in Pennsylvania were 34 percent more likely to give birth to infants who were small for their gestational age, according to researchers, even after accounting for factors like prenatal care, race, and the mother’s smoking habits.

8) Eight volatile chemicals were found near wells and fracking sites in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Benzene, a carcinogen, and formaldehyde were among the most common.

9) A survey from the University of Washington and Yale found that Pennsylvania residents who lived near gas facilities were more likely to report skin issues, headaches and nosebleeds. Residents within a kilometer of a gas well had twice the number of health problems as those living at least 2 kilometers away.

10) Research published by the American Medical Association found a connection between worsening asthma symptoms and one’s proximity to natural gas fracking operations.

11) Sixteen cattle died after drinking a “mysterious fluid” adjacent to a natural gas drilling rig. Someone working nearby claimed it was used for fracking, although the company that owns the gas drilling rig, Chesapeake Energy, had not identified the exact chemicals in the fluid.

12) Fracking could be having a negative impact on the dairy industry. One study looked at dairy farms in various Pennsylvania counties, and compared those in areas with the most wells drilled and those with the least. Those in the most heavily drilled areas saw a 30 percent loss of milk cows.

13) Researchers have also looked at the potential influence of fracking chemicals on the reproductive health of men. Using a mouse model, one study exposed a set of male mouse offspring to a mixture of chemicals that represented what humans would likely be exposed to from wastewater and drinking water. Compared to a control group of male offspring not exposed to these chemicals, they ended up having “a lower sperm count, higher testosterone levels in the blood and larger testicles in adulthood.”

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