A recent peer-reviewed study, Modern Natural Gas Development and Harm to Health: The Need for Proactive Public Health Policies argues that the natural gas industry must make changes now to protect the health of people and animals. The report by Madelon L. Finkel, Jake Hayes and Adam Law was published in the journal ISRN Public Health, 2013.
The paper provides a literature review of unconventional natural gas development and its effects on human health. It focuses on impacts on children’s health, general harm to health, water contamination and air and soil contamination.
Looking at harm to heath, the report cites published studies showing:
The production process creates a huge pressure cooker of organics and inorganics, and even if every single compound pumped into the well is harmless by itself (which is not the case), the pressure would create hundreds if not thousands of different compounds that are highly toxic. Of the few studies that have looked at the chemical cocktails used in the process, findings have identified chemicals that are known to cause cancers, mutations, and diseases of the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, the kidney, gastrointestinal tract and liver, heart, and skin. … researchers documented that the hydraulic fracturing process releases toxic and cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, toluene, xylene (BTEX), and methylene chloride among other health-hazardous air pollutants. These health-hazardous pollutants are released from a number of sources including blowouts, flaring, condensate tanks, construction activity, engines, and venting. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, also is emitted throughout the oil and gas development process. Methane interacts with sunlight to produce tropospheric ozone, which is a strong respiratory irritant associated with increased respiratory morbidity and mortality.
In relation to water contamination, the report notes:
The potential for contamination of aquifers by the residual fracking fluids that remain underground must be considered. The likelihood of spills throughout the entire lifecycle of development also must be taken into account. Blowouts (uncontrolled release of natural gas from a gas well after pressure control systems have failed) allow gas and/or highly contaminated produced waters to flow to the surface; hoses come undone, gaskets fail, pits or tanks that hold the fracking fluids leak raising the serious risk of ground and water contamination. Even small quantities of the toxic fracking fluids can contaminate shallow aquifers with hydrocarbons, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive materials.
The health impacts related to unconventional natural gas development may not be evident for years, as medical conditions with long latency periods will present over time. While the potential long-term, cumulative effects will not be known for years, we argue that it would be prudent to begin to track and monitor trends in the incidence and prevalence of diseases that already have been shown to be influenced by environmental agents. …
There needs to be an end to discharging effluent into rivers, streams, and groundwater… There needs to be much more attention paid to curtailing or preferably eliminating spills and leaks of radioactive wastewater. There needs to be an end to the disposal of radioactive sludge from drilling sites in landfills. There needs to be a safer way to develop this resource to limit the exposure to silica, which can cause silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. Banning the practice of burning off the initial flow of natural gas (flaring) needs to be mandated sooner than 2015, the date when EPA ruling goes into effect.
Most importantly, the authors state, “There needs to be a well-designed epidemiologic study conducted to empirically assess health status among those living proximate to active development compared to those living in areas where development is not occurring.”
High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing of shale formations has the potential to make natural gas a significant, economical energy source, but the potential for harm to human health is often dismissed by proponents of this method. While adverse health outcomes of medical conditions with long latency periods will not be evident for years and will depend on the exposure, duration of exposure, dose, and other factors, we argue that it would be prudent to begin to track and monitor trends in the incidence and prevalence of diseases that already have been shown to be influenced by environmental agents. The dirty downside of modern, unconventional natural gas development, as well as the potential for harm, is discussed.
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