This week the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Science and Health devoted an entire issue to the public health impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania, a state that now supplies 25% of the natural gas produced in the United States. The issue, titled “Facing the Challenges—Research on Shale Gas Extraction.” includes eight articles on the topic.
We have often talked about growing research into the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling. This research was instrumental in the recent New York State ban on high volume hydraulic fracturing.
Among other things, the researchers in the journal published this week found that fracking may be polluting Pennsylvania streams with mercury; that dogs – good “health sentinels” for human effects – have gotten sick near drilling sites; and that “extreme exposures” to volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogen benzene, can be expected during several stages of gas production and processing.
The special issue’s editor, John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the papers – outgrowths of a 2013 conference – should trigger additional studies.
Fracking is “not the traditional mom-and-pop drilling” and “could be considered a heavy industrial process,” Stolz said, indicating a need for careful siting of drilling rigs and other polluting facilities near residential areas.
“We’re not against the industry. That’s not the point,” Stolz said. “There are things related to this industry that have to be addressed. Let’s do it soberly and with eyes wide open.”
You can download all eight articles. They are listed below, with highlights:
Highlights: The process of fracking requires large volumes of water, proppant, and chemicals as well as a large well pad (3–7 acres) and an extensive network of gathering and transmission pipelines. Drilling can generate about 1,000 tons of drill cuttings depending on the depth of the formation and the length of the horizontal bore. The flowback and produced waters that return to the surface during production are high in total dissolved solids (TDS, 60,000–350,000 mg L¡1) and contain halides (e.g., chloride, bromide, fluoride), strontium, barium, and often naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) as well as organics. The condensate tanks used to store these fluids can contain a plethora of volatile organic compounds. The waste water, with its high TDS may be recycled, treated, or disposed of through deep well injection. Where allowed, open impoundments used for recycling are a source of airborne contamination as they are often aerated.
Highlights: More than a third of all exposures were associated with wastewater, processing and production operations; these exposures increased slightly over time. Health impacts decreased for families and animals moving from intensively drilled areas or remaining in areas where drilling activity decreased. In food animals, reproductive problems decreased and both respiratory and growth problems increased.
Highlights: The findings show that peak PM 2.5 and VOC exposures occurred 83 times over the course of 14 months of well development. Among the stages of well development, the drilling, flaring and finishing, and gas production stages produced higher intensity exposures than the hydraulic fracturing stage. Over one year, compressor station emissions created 118 peak exposure levels and a gas processing plant produced 99 peak exposures over one year.
Highlights: When dogs were analyzed separately, we found an elevated risk of ‘any’ reported health condition in households less than 1km from the nearest gas well, with dermal conditions being the most common of canine disorders.
Highlights: Results showed significantly higher dissolved total mercury (FTHg) in stream water, lower pH, and higher dissolved organic matter at fracked sites. Total mercury (THg) concentrations in crayfish, macroinvertebrates , and predatory macroinvertebrates were observed to be higher for fracked sites. A number of positive correlations between amount of well pads within a watershed and THg in crayfish, THg in predatory macroinvertebrates, and THg in brook trout were observed.
Highlights: The significant variability of unconventional oil and gas data and its availability to the public is a barrier to regulatory and industry transparency. The lack of transparency also impacts public education and broader participation in industry governance. This study supports the need to develop a set of data best management practices (BMPs) for state regulatory agencies and the O&G industry.
Highlights: Flowback and produced wastewaters from unconventional hydraulic fracturing during oil and gas explorations typically brings to the surface Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM), predominantly radioisotopes from the U238 and Th232 decay chains. To achieve quantification accuracy, this gamma spectrometer must be efficiency calibrated with known standard sources prior to field deployments to analyze the radioactivity concentrations in hydraulic fracturing waste products.
Highlights: Fifty-six of the 143 respondents indicated changes in water quality or quantity. Color change (brown, black, or orange) was the most common (27 households). Chloride, sulfate, nitrate, sodium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese and strontium were commonly found, with 25 households exceeding the secondary maximum contaminate level (SMCL) for manganese. Methane was detected in 14 of the 18 houses tested.
Concerned Health Professionals of New York, A Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction
New York State Department of Public Health, A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development