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Animal and Human Health Impacts from Gas Drilling: Peer-reviewed Study

January 23, 2012

Sudden death and other health impacts

Documentation of cases in six states strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife.

Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald’s peer-reviewed paper, “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Animal and Human Health,” was just published this month in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. It’s written in science-speak, such that that “strongly implicates” really means “we are quite sure,” as Susan Phillips asserts in her summary of the study on NPR’s blog, StateImpact: “Even with­out detailed infor­ma­tion on the tox­ins result­ing from gas drilling, the authors of the study say they have no doubt nat­ural gas drilling oper­a­tions killed or injured the ani­mals they ref­er­ence.”

So far, the study hasn’t received nearly the amount of attention it logically should, as the first peer-reviewed study examining sudden death and other health impacts caused by gas drilling in six states. Phillips’ piece, “Dead Calves and Hairless Puppies,” is a standout, drawing attention to Bamberger and Oswald’s key conclusion:

The study points out another research obsta­cle. Ani­mal own­ers who have reached a finan­cial set­tle­ment with an energy com­pany often have to sign a non-disclosure state­ment, which pre­vents them from dis­cussing the case. Their con­clu­sion? Halt drilling until more data can be col­lected, and the health impacts could be bet­ter documented.

Bamberger and Oswald’s paper serves many functions, so it’s worth exploring both the context and contents of the study in depth.

When I first started learning about shale gas drilling, I was stunned by the animal deaths I heard about. In 2009, 161 aquatic species died in a 38-mile stretch of Dunkard Creek in southwestern PA and WVA after gas drilling waste disposed of in an inactive coal mine found its way into surface waters. That same year, 17 cows died agonizing deaths in Louisiana after drinking fracking fluid which was 99% water. In spring 2010, a farmer in southwestern Pennsylvania told me that 85 of his cows had died due to gas drilling. Other farmers told me about their horses dying, cows failing to calve, about stillbirths and deformed young. I testified publicly about these accounts, and published some in the Weekly Press in Philadelphia in a series called “Shale Shame,” but these so-called “anecdotal” incidents were waved breezily away by the industry and painstakingly avoided by the mainstream press.

It became obvious that we needed a serious scientist to look at animal illnesses and deaths caused by gas drilling.

That science has arrived; it is powerful; it is absolutely clear; it is peer-reviewed, and it was published Monday, January 9th, 2012.  Veterinarian Michelle Bamberger, MS, DVM, and Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine Professor of Pharmacology Robert Oswald  have written a breakthrough paper.

If you don’t read any other scientific paper about gas drilling this winter, read this one. Pass it around; link to it on Facebook and Twitter. Share it with your legislators and other decisionmakers. It is important both for its documentation and for its analysis.

Coal mine full of canaries

For animal lovers, it may be upsetting to hear animals referred to repeatedly as “sentinels” indicating what may happen to human health in terms of our respiratory, gastrointestinal, reproductive, neurological, vascular and other systems — as if the only value of these suffering animals is in their presence as canaries in the coal mine. There are too many canaries in the coal mine; it’s a tough read. It’s hard to see the words “sudden death” repeated over and over in the summary chart. But this paper is invaluable both because it does accurately spell out the role these animals are playing as sentinels, and because it meticulously validates the reality so many of us are hearing about from rural areas, from grassroots activists and residents of shale country.

This paper makes it clear: no, farmers Terry Greenwood and Carol Johnson are not alone in finding their cows giving birth to dead and deformed calves; yes, the farmers who talked to me last spring in southwestern PA were telling it like it is. And no, it is not possible to get an accurate overall count of dead, deformed, stillborn and ill animals in shale country for three reasons related to the power and clout of the industry, outlined quite clearly in the study here:

It is also not a study of the health impacts of spe­cific chem­i­cal expo­sures related to gas drilling, since the nec­es­sary infor­ma­tion can­not be obtained due to the lack of test­ing, lack of full dis­clo­sure of the Inter­na­tional Union of Pure and Applied Chem­istry (IUPAC) names and Chem­i­cal Abstracts Ser­vice (CAS) num­bers of the chem­i­cals used, and the industry’s use of nondis­clo­sure agreements.

The study looks only briefly at wildlife; for example,

In a study of habitat selection, Sawyer et al. [34] found that mule deer tended to move away from areas of gas development, and in a recent report [35] from the same author, the deer population dropped by 45 percent in one year, and the survival rate decreased.

Bamberger and Oswald concentrate primarily on domesticated animals, both companion animals and livestock, with horses, goats, dogs, llama, and other animals included. A strong emphasis on cows remains, for purely practical reasons:

Animals, particularly livestock, remain in a confined area and, in some cases, are continually exposed to an environmental threat. Further, effects on reproduction can be more readily assessed in a herd of cattle than in a human population, simply due to the higher rates of reproduction.

Healthy cattle become unwitting “control groups” 

Bamberger and Oswald document devastating cases of significant deaths among cattle in a way which pulverizes the industry’s claim  that contaminants in water must be “pre-existing.” Here, there are “accidental” control groups, cattle not exposed to the contaminated water:

Two cases involving beef cattle farms inadvertently provided control and experimental groups. In one case, a creek into which wastewater was allegedly dumped was the source of water for 60 head, with the remaining 36 head in the herd kept in other pastures without access to the creek. Of the 60 head that were exposed to the creek water, 21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. Of the 36 that were not exposed, no health problems were observed, and only one  cow failed to breed.

At another farm, 140 head were exposed when the liner of a wastewater impoundment was allegedly slit, as reported by the farmer, and the fluid drained into the pasture and the pond used as a source of water for the cows. Of those 140 head exposed to the wastewater, approximately 70 died and there was a high incidence of stillborn and stunted calves. The remainder of the herd (60 head) was held in another pasture and did not have access to the wastewater; they showed no health or growth problems. These cases approach the design of a controlled experiment, and strongly implicate wastewater exposure in the death, failure to breed, and reduced growth rate of cattle.

Unlike people, who may at least have a chance to stop drinking their water when they suspect contamination from gas drilling, animals — from koi to cattle — have no such option. However, contaminated water very often is not noticed by humans either; and officials often tell people their water is safe to use for showering, dishwashing and even drinking when in fact it’s severely contaminated.

Therefore, a moratorium or ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling is the only way you can avoid participating in a large-scale human a health experiment — regardless of whether you are the “subject” or the “control group.” First, we must stop permitting disaster. Then, we can study the health and ecological impacts of the fracking already done, for decades. Meanwhile we must create a sane national energy policy with a U-turn on all extreme fossil fuel extraction, including fracking.

Humans are Animals

In closing, I want to bring attention to a very simple acknowledgment buried in Bamberger and Oswald’s study in this prosaic paragraph, which describes the most common pathways of exposure to gas drilling chemicals. The phrase of acknowledgment is, “In addition to humans, the animals affected were…”

The most common exposure by far was to affected water wells and/or springs; the next most common exposure was to affected ponds or creeks. Finally, exposures also were associated with compressor station malfunction, pipeline leaks, and well flaring. In addition to humans, the animals affected were: cows, horses, goats, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats, and koi. Other than photographing and recording the presence of dead and dying wildlife (deer, songbirds, fish, sala manders, and frogs) in the vicinity of affected pastures, creeks and ponds, the effect on wildlife has not been well documented.

“In addition to humans…” sums up the most humbling and important meta-message here. When we are sad about mule deer or songbirds, or angry about children or adults impacted by gas drilling, we are sad and angry not from a place of separation but from a place of connection. We are animals too, and just like any animal that destroys its habitat and overpopulates, we reap consequences for which there is no technological fix. Large-scale positive behavior change driven by self-organizing among larger and larger groups of people is essential. So is direct action.  The familiar system which feeds on a frenzy of profit-making, inequity, and ecocide is not as solid or as inevitable as it seems, and each of us is more powerful than we know.

When we bury our emotional responses to studies like this in numbness, we throw away our power. May each person who takes the time to read and understand this study thrive and grow in spirit and action throughout this year. Take the time to read it and delve beyond my clumsy excerpts, beyond Susan Phillips’ summary or Alternet’s good reporting on it. Galvanize yourself!

Information is power. We can’t say we didn’t know.

To re-print the study in full:

Direct reprint requests to:
Robert E. Oswald
Department of Molecular Medicine
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853

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