As Natural Gas Drilling Takes Health Toll, Efforts to Track Impacts Fall Behind

An increasing number of people living near natural gas fields and <"">hydraulic fracturing sites are reporting health problems, according to a new ProPublica investigation. Unfortunately, efforts to track the health impacts of drilling on nearby communities are lagging behind.

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground at high pressure to shake loose gas and oil deposits. Opponents of fracking have long been concerned that this type of natural gas drilling could lead to pollution of vital drinking water sources, either through the release of naturally-occurring hazardous substances or as a result of spills or leaks involving fracking fluid or fracking wastewater. Adding to concerns is the fact that, thanks to a loophole in federal regulation, drillers that employ hydraulic fracturing don’t have to reveal the chemicals – possibly toxic – that make up fracking fluids.

Unfortunately, neither states nor the federal government have systematically tracked health complaints near natural gas fields, ProPublica said. What’s more, natural gas drillers are not required to report toxic emissions and hazardous waste released, except from their largest facilities. As a result, ProPublica says no data is collected on hundreds thousands of wells and small plants. Finally, many natural gas drillers have declined to participate in long-term health studies of people living near natural gas sites. And while the gas industry claims to support long-term research and that health concerns should be taken seriously, no significant studies are currently underway.

“In some communities it has been a disaster,” Christopher Portier, director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Environmental Health told ProPublica. “We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole.”

In Pennsylvania, where fracking sparked a natural gas drilling boom in 2008, state regulators received 1,306 drilling-related complaints since 2009. According to ProPublica, while 45 percent alleged water pollution, officials have acknowledged they couldn’t separate out how many involved health issues. The state’s health secretary has pushed for the creation of a registry to track health complaints in Pennsylvania’s drilling area, but so far, the governor has not acted upon the recommendation.

The situation is much the same in Colorado, where according to ProPublica, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission received 496 complaints between mid-2006 and the end of 2008. But regulators there also have no way of separating those that involve health issues from those involving spills, or noise, or other disruptions, ProPublica said.

Now, according to ProPublica, medical and government groups are beginning to sound alarms about drilling’s potential to damage health. For example, Senator Robert Casey, D-PA, recently wrote to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state officials, asking them to investigate illness clusters in Pennsylvania. In his letter, Casey expressed concern that “disease groupings are often dismissed as statistically insignificant,” even though they are above the normal rate.

According to ProPublica, when the EPA proposed new emissions rules in July, it warned that the absence of regulations could lead to an unacceptably high risk of cancer for people living close to major natural gas facilities.

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