Is Cheap Gas Worth Our Children's Health?
A New PA Study Looks At Health Complications Related To The Fracking Boom.
Can exposure to certain environmental factors harm people’s health? That’s what scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health study, and the results from their latest project are in.
To address community concerns, the Pennsylvania Department of Health contracted with researchers at the public health institution in 2020 to conduct three observational epidemiological studies focusing on childhood cancers, birth outcomes, and asthma.
Unconventional oil and natural gas development, also known as fracking, is often located near residential areas. The practice injects millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals miles underground to release natural gas and/or oil.
In fact, almost 18 million Americans live within one mile of a fracking well and studies have found that the toxic chemicals from fracking, natural gas processing sites, and storage facilities are present in high concentrations in the bodies of people living or working near these sites.
About 1.5 million Pennsylvanians live within a half mile of oil and gas wells.
The state has a deep history with the fossil fuel industry as home to the country’s first major oil wells and a large coal producer for decades. It was also a leader in the “shale revolution,” thanks to the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from upstate New York into Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and parts of Ohio, that’s considered the second-highest emitting oil and gas project in the world.
Fracking has helped increase U.S. production of oil and natural gas, leading to lower energy prices. But are those savings worth it?
The four-year, $2.5 million research project released its findings earlier this month and found three big health concerns in the state:
Childhood Cancer: Children living close to active wells or near many wells had a higher risk of developing lymphoma.
See the full report here.
Birth Outcomes: Babies whose moms lived near active wells were 20-40 grams (about 1 ounce) smaller at birth.
See the full report here.
Asthma Exacerbations: People with asthma living close to active wells during the production phase had an increased chance of their asthma getting worse.
See the full report here.
“Epidemiological studies are the gold standard of environmental health research,” said Alison L. Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, in a statement. “In addition to these new studies, more than two dozen other epidemiological studies show a correlation between shale gas development and health impacts for residents living nearby. Hundreds of other investigations and first-hand accounts have shown that shale gas development correlates with poor health outcomes for people living in proximity to such infrastructure.”
When it comes to a cancer, it’s easy to say that genetics or lifestyle play a part, but then we have to talk about children. Cancer remains the leading cause of death from disease among children, according to the National Cancer Institute.
They don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs. Yet, 46 American children are diagnosed daily with cancers unrelated to genetics or family history. We know that children can be more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have both faster metabolisms and less mature immune systems.
Lack of Fracking Regs
Let’s not forget about the lax regulations enjoyed by the industry.
Congress excluded oil- and gas-related activities from federal regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 in the National Energy Policy Act. Unless there is a state requirement, companies are not required to disclose chemicals that they use in fracking, which otherwise would have been regulated by the EPA. Only 28 states mandate disclosure, while others either don’t require it or suggest self-reporting.
The exemption is known as the Halliburton loophole because Dick Cheney, then vice president, was the former CEO of Halliburton, one of the largest players in the hydraulic fracturing market.
How could such a law have been passed? Do you think money might have played a part? A big part. Corporations look at their bottom line first and foremost, hiring lobbyists and contriving science to get what they want done.
Cheney supported the bill and it passed with bipartisan support. Halliburton is also the second-most-named direct supplier of chemicals regulated under Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking is exempt from other flagship legislations as well, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.
They say knowledge is power but Big Oil has a way of downplaying health studies and information to protect their bottom line. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. We can maintain safety regulations and guidelines to protect public health while still engaging in economic growth.
Here’s what organizations engaged in protecting PA residents from further health harms have proposed:
Governments must hold industry accountable for leaking toxic pollution that harms residents. Tighter regulations must be put in place around all oil and gas activities. Additionally, industry-reported data on pollution from oil and gas activities in our communities is inadequate. More consistent monitoring is needed.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly must fully fund agencies like the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Health (DOH) so that they can do their job of protecting Pennsylvania’s resources and the health of residents. The DEP must more vigorously enforce the current regulations in place.
Pennsylvania Josh Governor Shapiro must call on the DOH and the DEP to work more closely and transparently with communities to provide residents with health-protective strategies to combat pollution and to ensure that the voices of residents, especially those experiencing environmental and health harms, are heard.
To protect the health and safety of Pennsylvanians, the legislature and Governor Shapiro should enact the eight recommendations made in the Grand Jury Report investigating the state’s shale gas industry. Governor Shapiro released this report in 2020 when he was Pennsylvania’s Attorney General. Extending setback distances from homes, schools, childcare centers, and nursing homes would be a good place to start.
The DOH and DEP must work together and with federal agencies to conduct comprehensive health impact assessments on shale gas development in affected areas, particularly those with a high concentration of low-income, minority, and other vulnerable populations.
Health systems and first responders should be better prepared for accidents, leaks, explosions, and other health impacts caused by the shale gas industry.
Add your voice to the conversation. Are you concerned about these new studies on fracking and our health? What’s happening where you live? Let us know in the comments below.