Pennsylvanians closest to fracking wells most likely will suffer health problems, report finds

People living closest to Pennsylvania’s thousands of active hydraulic fracturing (fracking) wells face a greater risk of suffering health complications caused by exposure to toxic air and water.

That’s the conclusion of a report funded by the environmental advocacy group Earthworks and its Oil & Gas Accountability Project. The group found that Pennsylvanians living closest to fracking wells were more likely to suffer breathing problems and skin irritations as a result of toxic air pollution created by the wells. And because these wells are affecting the quality of private water wells, many residents were also exposed to harmful contaminants used in the drilling process through their own tap water.

The study, entitled Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania, attempts to show how the contaminants used during the fracking process thousands of times a day in the state rich in natural gas deposits amid the massive Marcellus shale formation, can impact groundwater and eventually a person’s tap water, as well as waterways that serve as sources for public drinking water supplies. The study goes a step further explaining how the thousands of active wells in the state are impacting air quality.

The risk of being impacted by these dangers, the study authors found, was highest based on proximity to an active well. In the study, 70 percent of residents living closest to wells interviewed by Earthworks’ researchers reported persistent throat irritation and another 80 percent reported sinus infections once drilling commenced.

The claims made in this study have been hard to get environmental regulators, especially in Pennsylvania, to confirm. Pennsylvania, one of the epicenters of the national debate on the benefits-versus-drawbacks to fracking drilling, has extremely lax regulations in place governing companies that wish to open fracking wells to comb the depths of the Marcellus shale formation underlying much of the western and northern tiers of the state. In total, the Marcellus shale formation could contain trillions of dollars in gas reserves and Pennsylvania is situated atop much of it, the rock about two miles below the surface.

Fracking is performed by opening an underground, horizontal well shaft that extends until it reaches an underground shale bed. That rock is penetrated by a mix of fresh water, sand, and a mix of more than 600 chemicals guiding a drill. Once the rock is smashed, natural gas deposits are released and supposed to be rushed to the surface.

When wells are faultily constructed, these drilling fluids can leak through cracks or through the fissures created when the shale bed is broken. People living closest to wells – within a mile – have frequently reported complications they blame on the drilling that echo what study authors found for Earthworks.

Some residents say they have problems breathing and have developed skin lesions caused by the toxic air created by fracking wells. Unfortunately for residents of the state, doctors are prohibited from telling their patients that symptoms they’re suffering are the result of localized fracking drilling. That’s thanks in whole due to a state law which physicians were essentially forced to sign to continue practicing in Pennsylvania.

And some residents have been forced from their homes on account of fracking drilling, they believe. Gas levels, like methane and sometimes benzene and diesel fuel, have infiltrated private water wells, causing a home’s tap water to dispense bubbly. Some residents were even able to light their tap water on fire due to extremely high levels of gas pollution that could only be blamed on fracking drilling.

Some have been forced to find alternate sources of fresh water, often at their own expense, because state and federal regulators continue to side with the drilling industry claim that fracking does not impact public health. This Earthworks study is just the latest to make such a claim and joins a growing mountain of evidence that shows the negative impact of drilling.

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