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Drilling for Certainty: The Latest in Fracking Health Studies

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

From ProPublica:

For years, environmentalists and the gas drilling industry have been in a pitched battle over the possible health implications of hydro fracking. But to a great extent, the debate — as well as the emerging lawsuits and the various proposed regulations in numerous states — has been hampered by a shortage of science.

In 2011, when ProPublica first reported on the different health problems afflicting people living near gas drilling operations, only a handful of health studies had been published.  Three years later, the science is far from settled, but there is a growing body of research to consider.

Below, ProPublica offers a survey of some of that work. The studies included are by no means a comprehensive review of the scientific literature. There are several others that characterize the chemicals in fracking fluids, air emissions and waste discharges. Some present results of community level surveys.

Yet, a long-term systematic study of the adverse effects of gas drilling on communities has yet to be undertaken. Researchers have pointed to the scarcity of funding available for large-scale studies as a major obstacle in tackling the issue.

A review of health-related studies published last month in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that the current scientific literature puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address.”

Still, for some, waiting for additional science to clarify those uncertainties before adopting more serious safeguards is misguided and dangerous. As a result, a number of researchers and local activists have been pushing for more aggressive oversight immediately.

The industry, by and large, has regarded the studies done to date — a number of which claim to have found higher rates of illness among residents living close to drilling wells — as largely anecdotal and less than convincing.

“The public health sector has been absent from this debate,” said Nadia Steinzor, a researcher on the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at the environmental nonprofit, Earthworks.

Departments of health have only become involved in states such as New York and Maryland where regulators responded to the public’s insistence on public health and environmental reviews before signing off on fracking operations. The states currently have a moratorium on fracking.

New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah is in fact conducting a review of health studies to present to Governor Andrew Cuomo before he makes a decision on whether to allow fracking in the state. It is unclear when the results of the review will be publicly available.

Other states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, however, have been much more supportive of the gas industry. For instance, Texas has been granting permits for fracking in ever increasing numbers while at the same time the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that monitors air quality, has had its budget cut substantially.

1.    An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2012.

The study, performed in Garfield County, Colo., between July 2010 and October 2011, was done by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that examines the impact of low-level exposure to chemicals on the environment and human health.

In the study, researchers set up a sampling station close to a well and collected air samples every week for 11 months, from when the gas wells were drilled to after it began production. The samples produced evidence of 57 different chemicals, 45 of which they believe have some potential for affecting human health.

In almost 75 percent of all samples collected, researchers discovered methylene chloride, a toxic solvent that the industry had not previously disclosed as present in drilling operations. The researchers noted that the greatest number of chemicals were detected during the initial drilling phase.

While this study did catalogue the different chemicals found in air emissions from gas drilling operations, it did not address exposure levels and their potential effects. The levels found did not exceed current safety standards, but there has been much debate about whether the current standards adequately address potential health threats to women, children and the elderly.

The researchers admitted their work was compromised by their lack of full access to the drilling site. The air samples were collected from a station close to what is known as the well pad, but not the pad itself.

The gas drilling industry has sought to limit the disclosure of information about its operations to researchers. They have refused to publicly disclose the chemicals that are used in fracking, won gag orders in legal cases and restricted the ability of scientists to get close to their work sites. In a highly publicized case last year, a lifelong gag order was imposed on two children who were parties to a legal case that accused one gas company of unsafe fracking operations that caused them to fall sick.

In 2009, the Independent Petroleum Association of America started Energy In Depth, a blog that confronts activists who are fighting to ban fracking and challenges research that in any way depicts fracking as unsafe.

Energy In Depth responded to this Garfield County study and criticized its lack of proper methodology. The blog post also questioned the objectivity of the researchers, asserting that their “minds were already made up.”

The industry has also been performing its own array of studies.

Last year, for instance, an industry-funded study on the methane emissions from fracking wells was published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that only very modest amounts of methane — a known contributor to climate change — was being emitted into the air during fracking operations.

The study came under heavy criticism from Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, who two years prior had published work that claimed methane emissions from shale gas operations were far more significant.

“This study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry,” he said.

2.    Birth Outcomes and Natural Gas Development. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.

The study examined babies born from 1996 to 2009 in rural Colorado locations — the state has been a center of fracking for more than a decade. It was done by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University.

The study asserted that women who lived close to gas wells were more likely to have children born with a variety of defects, from oral clefts to heart issues. For instance, it claimed that babies born to mothers who lived in areas dense with gas wells were 30 percent more likely to have congenital heart defects.

The researchers, however, were unable to include data on maternal health, prenatal care, genetics and a host of other factors that have been shown to increase the risk of birth defects because that information was not publicly available. A common criticism of many scientific studies is that they do not fully analyze the possibility of other contributing factors.

The study has thus come under attack from both the industry and state public health officials. In a statement, Dr. Larry Wolk, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, said “people should not rush to judgment” as “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” in the study.

But Lisa McKenzie, one of the lead authors of the study, said there was value to the work.

“What I think this is telling us is that we need to do more research to tease out what is happening and to see if these early studies hold up when we do more rigorous research,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, Elaine Hill, a graduate student at Cornell University, obtained data on gas wells and births between 2003 and 2010. She then compared birth weights of babies born in areas of Pennsylvania where a well had been permitted but never drilled and areas where wells had been drilled. Hill found that the babies born to mothers within 2.5 kilometers (a little over 1.5 miles) of drilled gas sites were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight compared to those in non-drilled areas. Babies are considered as having low birth weight if they are under 2500 grams (5.5 pounds).

Hill’s work is currently under review by a formal scientific journal, a process that could take three or four years.

3.    Health Risks and Unconventional Natural Gas Resources. Science of the Total Environment, 2012.

Between January 2008 and November 2010, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health collected air samples in Garfield County, Colo., which has been experiencing intensive drilling operations. Researchers found the presence of a number of hydrocarbons including benzene, trimethylbenzene and xylene, all of which have been shown to pose health dangers at certain levels.

Researchers maintained that those who lived less than half a mile from a gas well had a higher risk of health issues. The study also found a small increase in cancer risk and alleged that exposure to benzene was a major contributor to the risk.

“From the data we had, it looked like the well completion phase was the strongest contributor to these emissions,” said Lisa McKenzie, the lead author of the study.

During the completion phase of drilling, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down the well at high pressure, and is then brought back up. The returning mixture, which contains radioactive materials and some of the natural gas from the geological formation, is supposed to be captured. But at times the mixture comes back up at pressures higher than the system can handle and the excess gas is directly vented into the air.

“I think we ought to be focused on the whole thing from soup to nuts because a lot of the potential hazards aren’t around the hydraulic fracturing step itself,” said John Adgate, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health and co-author on the study.

Energy In Depth, the industry blog, responded at length to this study and cited several “bad inputs” which had affected the results of the study. The researchers’ assumptions and data were criticized. For instance, the researchers had assumed that Garfield residents would remain in the county until the age of 70 in order to estimate the time period over which they would be exposed to the emissions.

“Unless the ‘town’ is actually a prison, this is a fundamentally flawed assumption about the length and extent of exposure,” Energy In Depth said.

This story is reprinted with permission from ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. 

Comments

  • marinemec

    The words, it might, it potentially and could happen are from precision guesswork from people who listen to blogs and opinion websites. Seems that every self proclaimed environmentalist is an expert, more than the scientists with credentials. I live in NY and I can tell you that this issue is ALL about politics!

    • HopeForpeaceNow

      I agree.

      Some politicians hope to empower Industry to harm families and get away with it.

      The cases of CONFIRMED water contamination alone in Penn are over 100.

      Every confirmed case is fought for years by Industry who lies, blames the victim.

      Would YOU want YOUR waster well contaminated, than the Industry responsible be able flip you off and walk away? You lose the entire value of your home.

      • marinemec

        You say Confirmed, Come up with one documented address of a polluted well. What you wrote is assumptions only.

        • HopeForpeaceNow

          These are DEP confirmed cases in Penn alone:

          — Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010. The Environmental Department
          said more complete data may be available in several months.

          — Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.

          — West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said.

          — A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said.”

          Turns out state agencies work for the Industry, not the people. YOU can have clean pre-drill tests and have the actual gas from drilling show up in tests .. and the state will still tell you you have no case.

          http://bigstory.ap.org/article/some-states-confirm-water-pollution-drilling

          • marinemec

            You say complaints? This is the point. Many complaints were from people who never had their water tested to this extent and almost all had bad water to begin with in the Marcellus shale. For instance, two years ago here in Otsego County in the Cooperstown area, fifty wells were tested before any drilling and 48 of them failed. Barium and other natural chemicals are in all areas where shale is near the surface. Dimock Pa had the same problem, water wells are not as clean as we would want to think. Although in the beginning, shotty work was performed and there was issues with drilling. Truth is, out of one point three million wells drilled, only one quarter of one percent had any issues which have been addressed. Any industry would love to have that kind of track record. Todays drilling is 99% safe. Blogs and opinion websites along with Josh Fox’s admitted spoof movie fueled most of this controversy. Look up the court case on youtube and watch him admit that his movie was NOT about facts. Thirty three other states are doing well with drilling and the only difference here in NY is the high amount of far Left Liberals who do not want any progress. It’s coming because this is what the government wants but we can watch closely, to keep it safe.

          • HopeForpeaceNow

            “You say complaints? ” you

            No;

            “Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005,” fact

            CONFIRMED. Did you MISS that? It’s repeated in the article …..read it again.

            Families in Dimock and Parker Texas, and many others HAVE CLEAN pre-drill tests.

            Their water was NOT contaminated before drilling..

            But they have been screaming that for 5 years.

            No one cares. No one listens.

            Please listen to them tell you:
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUJ_yV7-OGs

            And conservatives are trained in the lie based myths of Industry – that NO water or air contamination has occurred. That IS a lie and they know it as they settle cases with hundreds of families, then make the families sign silence agreements so they can’t talk.

            “Issues which have been addressed” you

            No. Most families fight for years and lose. The burden of proof is on the harmed and they face huge corps who fight making harmed families whole.

            try and read this information just about air pollution:

            http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/03/07/fracking-the-air-we-breathe/

            Tests Prove the pollution, the government works WITH Industry to make sure they can pollute and ruin people’s health … and get away with it.

            Would you want this to happen to you?

            “Both of our children are experiencing nose bleeds and
            I’ve had dizziness, vomiting and vertigo to the point that I couldn’t
            stand and was taken to an emergency room. Our daughter has commented
            that she feels as though she has cement in her bones.””

          • marinemec

            You are a firm believer of blogs and opinion websites, youtube is just an opinion. You have your mind set and believe everything is a conspiracy. I have talked to a few drillers and they are extremely careful not to have any issues during the process which is a very good work ethic. So much rhetoric is out there from all directions that makes it confusing. As I said, Scientific studies and documented data is the only way to get a straight answer.

          • HopeForpeaceNow

            ” blogs and opinion websites”

            Nope. 100% WRONG.

            The AP counted actual government documents.

            You clearly did not read the cite.

            Your lack of a logical argument shows in your need to think you know me. You don’t.

            Why not actually READ the AP report .. then we can have a real conversation.

            “As I said, Scientific studies and documented data.”

            ARE THERE ANY IN THE ARTICLE WE ARE COMMENTING ON HERE? ??

          • marinemec

            Read what you wrote! Opinion, Opinion Opinion. Case Closed.

          • HopeForpeaceNow

            Inane.

            It is the counting of actual, registered complaints. First source fact – 160 cases confirmed is just a count of official documents.

            How brainwashed do you have to be to call official documents “opinion”?

            Very.

          • marinemec

            Your screen name is derogatory, Keep ruling your cause and life in general with emotions only and see how far that gets you! As I wrote earlier, your too far out there to have an intelligent conversation with.

          • HopeForpeaceNow

            When you find that I am correct and you are WRONG – THEY ARE CONFIRMED CASES – you have no reply …

            so you mock as trained.

            You are far to ignorant to have a valid conversation with.

  • Raven Dupres

    May I remind you that our own government, in the 1950′s stood American soldiers at a one mile distance from nuclear bomb tests and told them it was “perfectly safe”. They also had school kids ducking under their desks and covering their eyes to avoid being killed by a nuclear bomb. Sort of like covering yourself with a wet face tissue and jumping into an active volcano and believing it will prevent burns. And of course, the tobacco companies telling everyone that it’s not addictive and it’s not unhealthy. Now, they have been dragged kicking and screaming into telling us that it’s harmful and addictive. SURPRISE!!!! Hey everyone, it does not take the brain power of an Einstein to realize that blasting the ground with a combination of water, sand and chemicals to get gas out, then taking the waste water and dumping it after it is so-called cleaned could be dangerous to our health. No studies needed. We have zillions of years worth of solar energy pouring down on the planet and these companies are trying like mad to stop actual renewable energy in favor of blowing holes in the earth. But the clincher is that while the gas companies are fracking away like crazy, the studies have not even been done to see if it’s safe. Why? Because the governments of the states where fracking is synonymous with greed have very little interest in protecting the citizens and even the citizens themselves have very little interest in stopping yet another dangerous process because everyone thinks they will be getting cheap power. Sort of like all that cheap, safe nuclear power in Japan that’s still bleeding radioactive crap into the envirnoment.

    • marinemec

      You are just too far out there to have a serious conversation with.

      • HopeForpeaceNow

        IN reality, that was a pretty fact based assessment.

        What did you have trouble with?

      • RD Webb

        To marinemec: Wow, you are obviously not from the fracking capital of America, Texas. I
        suggest you do more research into what we Texans are experiencing from
        the consequences of what you call “safe” including an industry that does
        not allow anyone to test their drill sites/wells except for their own
        so-called researchers. And guess what? Liberals and RepubIicans both are
        having the same issues in their neighborhoods because this issue is not
        prejudice when it comes to destroying property values, homes, and
        health. I suggest you do a lot more research yourself before you make
        silly and arbitrary statements accusing people of being “far left
        Liberals” and getting their information from “blogs and opinion
        websites”, whatever that means. Or you could ask Rex Tillerman, CEO of
        Exxon/Mobile and the person who has been the leader of our fracking
        revolution, why he and his very wealthy neighbors are suing to stop the
        construction of a water tower that would supply water to fracking wells near his property.
        He is concerned about property values and he should be. I’m guessing he
        knows a lot more about all this than anyone. Hey, if you like
        earthquakes you could move to Texas and live near all of our fracking
        wells (which are just about everywhere now) and get thrills galore with
        the ever-increasing seismic activity and ever-increasing strength to the
        activity that is causing great fear and concern in our citizens and
        destroying property and property values as we speak, with no end in site. Your comment about speaking to a few drillers yourself
        and they are “extremely careful to not have any issues during the
        process which is a very good work ethic” is interesting as well as your
        comment about “scientific studies and documented data”. Maybe you could
        suggest this to the industry and the drillers you know so a scientific
        study could actually be done at the actual drill sites, et al. And by
        your statement “we can watch closely to keep it safe” I am assuming that
        you are in this industry so would you please ask these people to step
        back from their wells and constant standing in the way, and let
        independent scientists prove that they have nothing to hide and it truly
        is safe. That is all we can ask for and it shouldn’t be considered
        unreasonable on any level. And, if you don’t mind, could you also ask
        them to back off of the in-your-face, defensive and intimidating
        wordplay/speak, along with the “you are a far left liberal who knows
        nothing but what other people tell you” attitude so we can finally get
        this settled once and for all. It would be much more helpful in finding
        out the truth which I know you, and I, both want to hear.

        • marinemec

          Local regulations or lack of is your real problem, not the HF process. Keep the hysteria going against progress with reasons created by not paying attension to scientific studies and data and examining all impacts before sighning on the doted line. This process is safe for informed people who pay attension. My research goes back to the 1800′s here in NY when drilling for gas began. Western NY has thousands of existing wells from back then with NO Problems but Anti’s won’t talk about it.

  • Raven Dupres

    Here is something to contemplate. Around 35 years ago, when nuclear power was in its infancy, My dad, a physician in New York City was having a discussion with one of his colleagues Everyone was excited about energy that would be “too cheap to meter”, which is how the government sold us that bill of goods. Dad and his physician colleague got into a heated discussion about this, with Dad taking the side of “where will they store all the nuclear wastes? Eventually the wastes will begin leaking out of the holding tanks and pollute the rivers and contaminate the salmon and other fish.” Colleague said that this was nonsense, that the tanks were so strong that they would hold the radioactive crap forever. Fast forward to a couple of days ago and the Hanford, Washington tanks are having serous leakage problems. Back to 35 years ago and the “too cheap to even meter” statement by the companies who were invested in nuclear power. Fast forward to today. How are your electric bills today? So cheap that you can pay for electricity and it’s not even as expensive per month as a good meal at McDonalds? Studies, studies, studies. What we need is less studies and more common sense. Think friends, if you see smoke and it’s making the air black and ash is falling on the ground, think pollution. If the air smells worse than skunk scent, do you need a study to realize that the air stinks, is polluted? I can list at least 100 things that were considered safe in the past until an embarrassing number of people were injured or died. Then everyone ran for the magic study, when all those lives could have been saved by just using individual brain power. You don’t need a crash dummy to realize that seat belts and air bags are things that would save your life in an accident. But how many studies and more studies were done and how much screaming and arguing was done in Congress before cars were required to have these simple safety measures. While the industry was stalling and studying, drivers and their families were being splattered all over the windshields.

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