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Fracking: Health Risks of Gas Well Drilling

  • Published: 2015-06-23 (Revised/Updated 2017-08-23) : Thomas C. Weiss (Disabled World).
  • Synopsis: Information regarding some of the health risks associated with the process of fracking gas wells.
Fracking

Hydraulic fracturing (also hydro-fracturing, hydro-fracking, fracking or fraccing) is defined as a well-stimulation technique in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid. The process involves the high-pressure injection of 'fracking fluid' (primarily water, containing sand and other proppants suspended with the aid of gelling agents) into a well-bore to create cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas, petroleum, and brine will flow more freely.

Main Document

Quote: "Contrary to hard evidence available, the drilling industry has rather loudly proclaimed that toxic exposures to people living near drilling sites, downstream from them, or downwind from drilling sites do not happen."

Fracking

Vertical well bores are drilled thousands of feet into the earth through sediment layers, the water table and shale rock formations in order to reach the gas and oil. The drilling is then angled horizontally, where a cement casing is installed and serves as a conduit for the massive volume of fracking fluid, water, sand and chemicals required to fracture shale and rock. In some instances, before the injection of fluids, small explosives are used to open up the bedrock.

The fractures allow the oil and gas to be removed from rock formations. While fracking has technically been around for decades, the type and scale of drilling taking place now - deep fracking, is a new form of drilling and was used in the Barnett shale of Texas in the year 1999.

Health Risks

Risks to people's health are present at each step of the hydraulic fracturing gas extraction process. The risks include the potential for contamination of drinking water through surface spills, blowouts, well casing failures and other events. Over time, ground to water sources and aquifers through naturally occurring fissures become contaminated. Other risks include the following:

Even though these hazards are known, the gas and oil industry is exempt from important provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and additional federal environmental laws. The absence of federal regulatory oversight finds individual states in America regulating the industry and attempting to appropriately enforce those regulations.

Toxic Substances and Fracking

A number of the chemicals used in the fracking process are proven toxins. These toxins may include the following:

As well as other toxins which are hazardous if they are ingested, inhaled, or contacted by a person's skin and are considered to be mutagenic, carcinogenic, caustic and teratogenic. Of the hundreds of chemicals tested by Endocrine Disruption Exchange, 93% of them affect human health while 43% are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are man-made chemicals that when absorbed into a person's body, mimic hormones or block hormones and disrupt their usual body functions.

The toxins have been linked to ADHD, infertility, diabetes, autism and thyroid disorders. Even adult and childhood cancers have been found to be linked with fetal exposure to endocrine disruptors. One report from 2012 concludes that endocrine disruptors, even at low doses, may have highly negative effects on both human and animal health.

Along with the chemicals used in fracking, the waste water that is a byproduct of the drilling process picks up salts, naturally occurring radioactive material, magnesium, barium, as well as a number of additional volatile organic compounds which are also carcinogenic. It has been definitively concluded that the waste water contains radioactivity and other toxic materials at levels that are often geometrically higher than the level federal regulators have said is safe for waste water treatment plants to handle.

Exposure to any one or to combinations of the long list of toxins presents adverse health effects that are also well known and include nearly every system in a person's body. Areas of known adverse health effects include the following:

Along with genetic abnormalities and illnesses. Intense or chronic exposure to some of these toxins and combinations of them may result in death. The time course for manifestation of illness related to the toxins associated with gas drilling might be months, years or even decades.

Environment-related cancers may take 15-30 years to develop. In the state of Louisiana, where the petroleum industry is well established, portions of the state are referred to as, 'cancer alley,' due to higher liver, lung and other forms of cancers associated with the industry.

Industry Denial

Contrary to hard evidence available, the drilling industry has rather loudly proclaimed that toxic exposures to people living near drilling sites, downstream from them, or downwind from drilling sites do not happen. The denial follows a pattern by other industries such as the tobacco industry of denying very plain health consequences of using their product. In the 1970's, the inhabitants of Love Canal finally succeeded in gaining attention to their plight only when they invited federal and state officials to visit their homes and expose themselves to the visible chemical vapors and fumes, as well as the noxious smells, that choked their throats and burned their eyes.

Examples of Gas Drilling and Health Issues

A woman named Crystal Stroud was in good health prior to the start of drilling near her. She started to experience tremors, hair loss, stomach cramps, heart palpitations, slurred speech and loss of balance; symptoms often times described by people at other drilling sites around the nation. Following a thorough investigation it was discovered that Crystal had barium poisoning - something that is very rare except for people who work and live around industrial sites. Her well water was tested and found to be contaminated with levels of:

Crystal's health improved to some degree after she stopped drinking her water.

The Mayor of Dish, Texas reported that air pollution from drilling has ruined the quality of life for residents of the town. The residents reported issues with headaches, nausea, chronic eye and throat irritation, breathing difficulties and brain disorders. Results from the Ambient Air Monitoring Analysis performed in Dish, Texas found high levels of a number of chemicals used in fracking fluid to include toluene, benzene, barium, xylene arsenic, lead, chromium and selenium in the water wells of residents. Considering the absence of the symptoms the resident experienced before drilling began and with no other reasonable source of contamination identified - the findings point to inadequate containment of drilling-related toxins, resulting in adverse health effects.

Facts: Health and Fracking

There is concern over the possible adverse public health implications of hydraulic fracturing activity. A 2013 review on shale gas production in the United States stated, "with increasing numbers of drilling sites, more people are at risk from accidents and exposure to harmful substances used at fractured wells." A 2011 hazard assessment recommended full disclosure of chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing and drilling as many have immediate health effects, and many may have long-term health effects - (Centner, Terence J. (September 2013). "Oversight of shale gas production in the United States and the disclosure of toxic substances". Resources Policy 38 (3): 233-240. doi:10.1016/j.resourpol.2013.03.001.)

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