Health Concerns of 'Fracking' Drawing Increased Attention

EPA Conducting Studies on Health Effects

Charlotte Tucker


Nations Health. 2012;42(2) 

Abstract and Introduction


Energy independence has become a popular catchphrase in the U.S. in recent years, and efforts to achieve it have led companies into the world of hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new method of driving underground gases to the surface for collection.

But concern about drinking water resources at several locations near where energy companies are conducting hydraulic fracturing has spurred the Environmental Protection Agency to study the issue, and other potential health concerns are slowly coming into focus.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking" or shale gas exploration, is the process of using pressure in a water, chemical and sand mixture to create fractures in underground shale formations to push gas to the surface, where it can be collected. Shale gas is underground in a number of sites, including in the West, the South and the Northeast's Appalachian Basin, according to the American Petroleum Institute. The gas is used for a variety of purposes, including energy generation, home heating and transportation.

The institute contends that the development of a shale geologic formation located in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia for gas extraction could generate 300,000 new jobs and more than $6 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.

But all that development comes at a cost, say some public health and environmental researchers, and there is not yet enough research to say exactly what that cost will be.

"Most of our evidence at this point is anecdotal," said Jerome Paulson, MD, FAAP, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment at George Washington University. "There really isn't a lot of hard science on this yet."

Paulson, an APHA member, cited a few studies — one from Wyoming that found increased levels of ozone near hydraulic fracturing sites and another by researchers at Duke who documented the presence of methane in well water near natural gas wells. But as of now, most of the indication that hydraulic fracturing might pose public health threats comes from people who live near the wells, who complain of headaches, nosebleeds, disorientation, fainting and sick animals. They say that family members have developed cancer and other chronic diseases as a result of being exposed either to the gas itself or to contaminated water resulting from its extraction.

Water is one of EPA's biggest concerns. There is potential for chemicals used in the fracking process to leach into ground water and work their way into well water as well. The purpose of the agency's study is to understand the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources. It will examine the "full lifespan of water in hydraulic fracturing," EPA officials said in a statement, from acquisition of the water through the mixing of chemicals and the fracturing to the post fracturing, including examining what happens with the water after the fracturing and how it is treated and disposed of.

University of Pittsburgh researchers released as-yet unpublished data in 2011 indicating problems with wastewater disposal from shale gas extraction. They found that for some period of time, wastewater from fracking sites was taken to the publicly operated water treatment plant, but the facilities were not equipped to handle that wastewater. The water that emerged from the treatment plants was chemically different from what usually came out, Paulson said. That process has since slowed or stopped, Paulson said.

EPA expects to release its first report this year and complete the study in 2014. In January, the agency also said that it was going to take the step of having water delivered to four homes in Dimock, Pa., where a data review found the well water contains contaminants at a high enough level to raise concern. Some residents of Dimock say gas well drilling that has occurred in the area over the past three years has polluted their drinking water.

Water is one of the biggest concerns about the hydraulic fracturing method, but some groups are also worried about air pollution.

In January, the American Lung Association submitted comments to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, noting the department's plans contain "troubling air quality deficiencies that must be corrected before any standards governing extraction are finalized," said CEO Jeffrey Seyler in a statement.

In its comments to the state, the association contended that the plan will increase air pollution and does not account for the "thousands of truck trips per well that are expected to occur with high volume drilling."

"It seems highly likely there will be impacts on children with asthma that lead to hospitalizations, lost school days and higher health care costs," the association said.

Worker safety is also a concern. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said it would like to partner with oil and gas extraction companies to identify possible chemical exposures for workers at drilling sites.

Another concern is earthquakes. In an August 2011 report, the U.S. Geological Survey found that there is some evidence that the high-pressure injection of the water-chemical mixture into underground wells might trigger small earthquakes.

Not knowing the consequences of pumping large amounts of high-pressure water underground for gas extraction is also a danger, according to Madelon Finkel, PhD, professor of clinical public health at Weill Cornell Medical College.

"First do no harm," said Finkel, who wrote a commentary on hydraulic fracturing in the May 2011 issue of APHA's American Journal of Public Health. "If you have an industry where there are, in a sense, known dangers, don't go forward until you've actually analyzed and assessed what these dangers are."

Finkel said she was pleased to hear President Barack Obama mention during his State of the Union address in January that he will require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in their fracking fluid, but she said the administration needs to go further to ensure that the process is safe.

Paulson prefers to call hydraulic fracturing by another name, unconventional gas extraction, because he believes the threats to human health go beyond the act of removing the gas from the ground.

"To refer to it as fracking, though that's what everybody does, doesn't talk about the whole range of potential human health impacts," he said.

He said he is familiar with the concerns about water and air pollution, but Paulson raised another issue that he said needs to be taken into consideration: mental health.

It depends on the state as to how close drill pads can be to homes, Paulson said, but in Pennsylvania, for example, the minimum distance is 300 feet. Drilling operations may be under way 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which can disturb sleep and lead to problems with focus.

"There are some significant mental health risks here as well as just the health risks from being worried about unknown exposures," he said. "The stress on people is very significant. I don't mean to imply that the things they complain about are not real. I think many anecdotes will turn out to be real, documentable health problems."