A new study has linked fracking to a higher incidence in infant mortality, perinatal mortality, low-weight births, premature births and cancer in infants and children.
Funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation and written by Joe Mangano, co-founder and president of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a nonprofit educational and scientific organization that studies the relationship between low-level, nuclear radiation and public health, the study used data from state agencies to examine eight heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania — four in the northeast and four in the southwest region of the state, counties that account for the majority of the state’s natural gas drill wells and gas production. In all categories but child cancer, increases were greater in the northeast counties than they were in the four southwest counties.
“The information presented in this report supports the hypothesis of a link between exposure to toxic chemicals released in fracking and increased risk of disease and death,” writes Mangano, who also manages the citizen-based radiation monitoring programs near the nuclear plants at Indian Point, New York, and Oyster Creek, New Jersey. “While it is virtually impossible to estimate a ‘dose’ to a community from chemicals generated by fracking, it is clear that residents of the eight most-fracked counties received far greater exposures than those in the rest of Pennsylvania.”
Analyzing publicly available data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mangano found that, since the early 2000s and compared to the rest of the state, the heavily-fracked counties have seen a rise in infant mortality (13.9 percent), perinatal mortality (23.6 percent), low-weight births (3.4 percent), premature births/gestation less than 32 weeks (12.4 percent) and cancer incidence in age 0-4 (35.1 percent).
Mangano asserts that the advent of large-scale fracking “has added considerable amounts of toxic chemicals into the environment, including various greenhouse gases and radiation. While potential health consequences of fracking has been become a national issue, very little research on health trends among affected populations has been conducted.”
Over the past decade, Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S. have seen a rapid rise in fracking operations. Between January 1, 2005, and March 2, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 10,232 drilling permits, and denied only 36 requests.
With 66 operators currently drilling 7,788 active wells, fracking has dramatically changed the landscape of northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania. So too has the scientific evidence of fracking’s negative impact on public health. The fracking process produces diesel particulate matter, the exposure of which may lead to asthma, headaches, high blood pressure, anemia, congenital hearth defects, heart attacks and cancer.
Fracking has also been linked to drinking water pollution and the release of radon gas, a known carcinogenic. Some 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins such as lead, benzene, uranium, radium, methanol, mercury, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and formaldehyde.
“I am convinced that fracking as it is done today should be banned,” said Dr. David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany and Professor of Environmental Health Sciences within the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, in an email. “But I am not in theory opposed to fracking — only when it is done is a fashion that poses a significant threat to human health.”
Epidemiological studies on the effect of fracking on infants and children can be more useful than similar studies on adults. “Any environmentally-caused health problems in the very young are the result of a recent insult, while health problems in adults can be a result of a much earlier exposure with a long lag period before the disease is diagnosed,” Mangano notes. “The very young are most susceptible to the harmful effects of environmental radiation, so any unusual patterns in morbidity or mortality would show up quickest in these groups.”
“The information is only a start in refining the discussion about fracking’s impact on humans,” notes Mangano. “Other studies must be conducted, on this and other geographic areas, disease categories, and age groups. As these develop, it is crucial that information such as this is disseminated to citizens and public leaders, leading to more informed discussion that will make future public policies that best protect the public’s health.”
Part of that discussion must be how fracking is done. Clearly, there are problems with the methods used in Pennsylvania: Between January 2009 and March 2015, fracking operators in the state have been issued more than 4,000 violations with fines totaling $6.1 million.
Carpenter, who co-authored a 2014 study published in the journal Environmental Health that analyzed the air concentrations of volatile organic compounds in five states, including Pennsylvania, near unconventional oil and gas sites, believes that fracking methods can change to reduce the potential impact of fracking on public health. “I’m sure the industry could clean up its act if it were required to do so,” he said.
Mangano said that his study’s results “should be disseminated to shareholders, including citizens, citizen groups, public officials, health officials, media, and gas companies. The discussion of fracking’s effects need to continue and be evidence-based as much as possible, so that public policies can best protect the public’s health.”
“The abstract is alarming,” said Rebecca Roter, founder and chairperson of Breathe Easy Susquehanna County (BESC), a nonpartisan community advocacy group based in Montrose, Pennsylvania, seeking to reduce air pollution from natural gas drilling. Roter, who wrote a letter in support of Mangano’s grant application for the study, advocates working with the oil and gas industry to achieve a common good: clean air. “It doesn’t matter what side of the issue of drilling you are on: you are breathing, too. We can all agree on maintaining air quality.”