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“The Fracking Frenzy’s Impact on Women”

April 9, 2012

A well-documented essay by Sara Jerving, reporting for the Center for Media and Democracy, pulls together a core set of concerns that make fracking a feminist issue. Jerving writes, “Chemicals used in fracking have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive health problems and there have been reports of rises in crimes against women in some fracking ‘boom’ towns…”

The Fracking Frenzy’s Impact on Women” is well worth reading in its entirety. While there’s been talk of galvanizing women, as individuals, in organized groups and as a powerful sector, to rise up against fracking, it’s mostly remained talk. Perhaps this article, which pulls together health concerns reported on repeatedly here on Protecting Our Waters’ blog, may be the spark to light that fire.

Jerving’s first section, “Toxins in Fracking Process Linked to Breast Cancer,” provides the underpinnings for an understanding of why the six counties in Texas with the heaviest shale gas drilling have shown an increase in aggressive breast cancer while rates are falling in the rest of Texas. Shale gas drilling has been going on longer in Texas then elsewhere in the U.S., so it’s an indication of what the Marcellus Shale region’s future looks like unless we stop the wild acceleration of fracking:

Not only do the chemical cocktail inserted into the ground been shown to contaminate groundwater and drinking water, but fracking fluid also picks up toxins on its trip down to the bedrock and back up again that had previously been safely locked away underground. Chemicals linked to cancer are present in nearly all of the steps of extraction — in the fracking fluids, the release of radioactive and other hazardous materials from the shale, and in transportation and drilling related air pollution and contaminated water disposal.

Some reports indicate that more than 25 percent of the chemicals used in natural gas operations have been linked to cancer or mutations, although companies like Halliburton have lobbied hard to keep the public in the dark about the exact formula of fracking fluids. According to the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce, fracking companies used 95 products containing 13 different known and suspected carcinogens between 2005 and 2009 as part of the fracking fluid that is injected in the ground. These include naphthalene, benzene, and acrylamide. Benzene, which the U.S. EPA has classified as a Group A, human carcinogen, is released in the fracking process through air pollution and in the water contaminated by the drilling process. The Institute of Medicine released a report in December 2011 that links breast cancer to exposure to benzene.

Up to thirty-seven percent of chemicals in fracking fluids have been identified as endocrine-disruptors — chemicals that have potential adverse developmental and reproductive effects. According to the U.S. EPA, exposure to these types of chemicals has also been implicated in breast cancer.

The Marcellus Shale in the northeast part of the United States also naturally contains radioactive materials, including radium, which is largely locked away in the bedrock. The New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) analyzed 13 samples of water, contaminated by the fracking process, as a result of the hydraulic fracturing of the shale during the extraction process. The DEC found that the resulting water contained levels of radium-226, some as high as 267 times the limit for safe discharge into the environment and more than 3000 times the limit safe for people to drink. One gas well can produce over a million gallons of contaminated water. A New York Times expose in 2011, released secret EPA documents that illustrated how this water is sometimes sent to sewage plants that are not designed to process the dangerous chemicals or radiation which in some instances are used in municipal drinking supplies or are released into rivers and streams that supply drinking water.

Emerging data points to a problem requiring more study. In the six counties in Texas which have seen the most concentrated gas drilling, breast cancer rates have risen significantly, while over the same period the rates for this kind of cancer have declined elsewhere in the state. Similarly, in western New York, where traditional gas drilling processes have been used for decades before hydrofracking came along, has been practiced for nearly two centuries, rural counties with historically intensive gas industry activity show consistently higher cancer death rates (PDF) than rural counties without drilling activity. For women, this includes breast, cervix, colon, endocrine glands, larynx, ovary, rectal, uterine, and other cancers.

The next section, “Toxins linked to Spontaneous Abortion and Birth Defects,” takes a close look at chemicals which can harm women’s reproductive capacities. The Bamberger/Oswald study (January 2012) documents a high rate of stillbirths, mutations and other reproductive failures among cows and other animals impacted by fracking, which further reinforces this concern as a red alert.

Certain compounds, such as toluene, that are released as gas at the wellhead and also found in water contaminated by fracking have the potential to harm to pregnant women or women wishing to become pregnant. According to the U.S. EPA, studies have shown that toluene can cause an assortment of developmental disorders in children born to pregnant women that have been exposed to toulene. Pregnant women also carry an increase risk of spontaneous abortion from exposure to toluene. Wyoming failed to meet federal standards for air quality due to fumes containing toluene and benzene in 2009.

Sandra Steingraber, an acclaimed ecologist and author of “Raising Elijah” — a book on how to raise a child in an age of environmental hazards, takes the strong stand that fracking violates a woman’s reproductive rights. “If you want to plan a pregnancy and someone else’s chemicals sabotage that — it’s a violation of your rights as a woman to have agency over your own reproductive destiny,” she said.

Steingraber sees banning fracking as an issue that both the pro-choice and anti-abortion camps can both rally behind. She has been giving talks on why opposition to fracking should be considered a feminist issue. The author won a Heinz award — which recognizes individuals for their contributions in areas including the environment — for her work on environmental toxins. She dedicated the $100,000 prize to the fight against fracking.

Fracking Frenzy’s Impact on Women” goes on to discuss the documented increase both in sexual assault crimes against women, committed by gas drilling workers with no ties to the local community where they work; and in domestic violence, associated with gas drilling families living in high-stress circumstances similar to military bases.

While we’ve previously under-reported this phenomenon out of a desire to avoid sensationalism and out of a concern for the lives of workers, who must themselves be protected and supported rather than demonized, facts are facts. Women’s safety as well as physical health is at greater risk when frackers come to town.

The showy efforts a few gas drillers have made to appear “as if” they care about women’s lives — painting a drilling rig pink and donating to breast cancer research, for example — while injecting massive amounts of carcinogens, neurotoxins, biocides and endocrine disruptors underground, while drilling and spilling and dumping wantonly aboveground — has backfired. Women will fight not just for the fate of the earth and for our children, families, communities and future generations, but for our own lives.

5 Comments
  1. April 9, 2012 10:34 am

    Facebooked & Twittered this one. Recalling now those great words from the song “Bread and Roses” – “The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
” Time for a rising.

  2. Mark Schmerling permalink
    April 9, 2012 2:31 pm

    Apparently Thomas Jefferson felt we should have a revolution every twenty years. That’s the sort of fine-tuning that a nation needs to perform. In the absence of that we have increasing fascism and corporate control of nearly every part of our lives.

    Time for a real revolution.

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