Skip to content

A Canary in the Coal Mine or A Cow in the Gas Land

April 28, 2012

Dead Cows, Gag Orders, and Growing Concern Among Medical Professionals

Concerns continue to grow among healthcare professionals about health risks from the natural gas extraction process, particularly from deep shale formations such as the Marcellus Shale. Dr. Poune Saberi, a doctor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been monitoring the adverse health effects the industry on animals, people, and communities since the industry came to Pennsylvania. She recently voiced her concern in the op-ed “What the Frack: if Hydraulic Fracturing Kills Cows, What Can it Do to Us?” on the website VitaminW.

When asked if fracking impacts our health, her answer is simple. Yes.

She opens with a brief history of the natural gas drilling process, touching on some important points. In particular, high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses many times more chemicals with higher toxicity compared to the older-style shallow gas drilling, became exempt in 2005 from 7 of the 15 major federal environmental laws, which were designed to protect air and water, and ultimately humans, from radioactive and hazardous chemicals. She also explains that Pennsylvania is particularly vulnerable to the industry because it is one of the few states that does not regulate well water, meaning that no data about water quality was collected before the industry moved into town.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was at the helm of the administration in 2004 [when Pennsylvania began rolling out the red carpet for the fracking industry]. There were never any studies, public health or otherwise, into the potential disasters that drinking water contamination in our state could cause.

The Appalachian region of Pennsylvania has a long history of coal mining and of industry devastating the land, poisoning the rivers, and wreaking havoc on public health. It is here that the gas industry first leased land, moved in their diesel trucks and began drilling deep into the earth. She states

It was there that the public health community realized it is not just fracking that affects health, it is the entire life cycle of this technology that scars community members. Each gas pad can require more than 190,000 diesel truck trips to frack.  No new research is needed to make the connection. The research about air pollution and health already exists and it was compounded in the coal ash regions in southwest Pennsylvania.

Dr. Saberi’s piece brings up many concerns, some that we have been aware of for years, but her last two points are the most timely and poignant.

She explains that health problems seen in animals are sometimes sentinel cases for human health problems and that we now have conclusive evidence that fracking has a detrimental effect on the health of cows. Although we have heard first-hand accounts from farmers many times, a peer-reviewed study by Oswald and Bamberger recently published shows that cows that drank water contaminated by fracking fluid had  a 47% mortality rate. Nearly half of them died. It is easy to see them as the “canary in the coal mine.” Maybe one day we will call it the “cow in the gas lands.”

She also notes that we directly consume these cows and animals and their byproducts.

…animals are sources of food for humans. At a time when we ardently try to champion and support local, American cultured and grown food, we are creating an alarming source of toxic exposure. The technique to routinely test for radioactivity, chemicals and other unknowns does not exist when our food is concerned.

The last topic Dr. Saberi writes about is one that could directly affect her as a doctor.  A story broken by Susan Phillips for StateImpact PA revealed that the Pennsylvania bill HB1950, also known as Act 13, passed in February 2012, would allow medical professionals to gain access to information about the chemicals and processes used in natural gas drilling in order to treat patients, but also requires them to sign a con­fi­den­tial­ity agree­ment, restricting them from sharing that information — even with the patient they are treating. Many people are calling these confidentiality requirements a “gag order.”

This bill was signed into law by the current administration, [under Governor] Tom Corbett, and will be instituted mid April, 2012. Full analysis of this bill is beyond the scope of our discussion. However, I will bring attention to the health care provisions section, otherwise known as medical gag laws. It states that only when a doctor determines there is a dire medical emergency for a patient and swears to secrecy by signing the appropriate documents will a company whisper its proprietary mixture of fracking chemicals. That physician is not allowed to share this information, not with colleagues, nor with the patient. It is clear that this bill was not written with the interest of Pennsylvanians in mind. Otherwise, at least one public health professional would have been consulted.

As Pennsylvanians — as human beings —  we deserve more than this. Our air, our water and our health should be  protected by the federal laws that were set in place to do just that – no industry should be exempt. It is clear that fracking impacts our health, and doctors should not be forced to withhold information from the public, from their patients and from their colleagues.

Hydraulic fracturing clearly affects our health—as it did those 102 dead cattle. That’s before mentioning the other exposures such as noise, vibration, light or the emotional trauma of the stressors that fracking activities cause.

It is important for medical profesisonals to speak out like Dr. Poune Saberi, but it doesn’t take a medical professional to see that we should all be alarmed by the issues raised in her article. As citizens we need to contact our representatives and support bills like the FracAct, which would close some of the loopholes and ensure industry compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and bills like the one introduced on April 16th by Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (Delaware and Montgomery Counties), which would reverse the gag order in Act 13.

  1. April 28, 2012 3:59 pm

    102 dead cows…oh yeah the 17-20 from Caddo Parish…the donzen or so? from Mineral Wells TX and all the still borns….is that where the 102 figure came from?

  2. April 28, 2012 4:01 pm MIneral wells 20 cattle….they were not part of the recent big study either. Last I spoke with the owner, he was trying to get some legal help.

  3. April 28, 2012 4:03 pm

    Or rather he was trying to get some gas drilling experts to tolak to his legal defense…can’t remember….I hope the outcome implicates the drillers or the injection wells in that area. This happened 6 months after the Caddo Parish incident I believe. Too bad the industry doesn’t work together to prevent this from continuing to happen.

  4. Iris Marie Bloom permalink
    April 29, 2012 9:52 am

    Kim, thanks for the disturbing information about the cattle in Mineral Wells, Texas. You are asking where these incidents have happened? Bamberger and Oswald are bound professionally to respect the confidentiality of the people they studied. But I can tell you from my own interviews with farmers that in addition to cattle deaths in TX and LA due to fracking, a large number of cows have died in Pennsylvania due to gas drilling; farmers told me that over a hundred cows had died in Bedford County and in Washington County, PA by 2010. Also, stillborn and deformed calves were reported by Terry Greenwood, whose cows did not calve at all last spring (2011), years after the initial contamination of his farm by gas drillers. Also in Tioga County, cows that were quarantined after being exposed to fracking fluid in 2010 had low birth rates the following year (2011) and gave birth to calves so weak and sick that they died after a few hours
    In one of the most heartbreaking accounts of all shale country, Lisa Bracken of West Divide Creek, CO reported that 2 1/2 years after gas drilling first contaminated West Divide Creek in 2008 [I think she is referring to 2010], “the elk did not calve that year… or perhaps they did, but the calves all died. I only found one sign of new life in the spring: a dead stillborn fawn in a ditch by our driveway. A sign I could neither miss nor mistake.” My heart goes out to Lisa Bracken.
    Heartbreaking as it is, we must report this information here because it is simply not being reported in the mainstream press. We must continue to push reporters all over the U.S. and world to report on these sentinels, the animal life we love no less than Rachel Carson loved the birds whose demise she warned about in “Silent Spring.” We must not allow this denial to continue and the press to be silent about — or dismissive towards — these animal deaths widely reported in shale country and documented carefully by Bamberger and Oswald, whose 2012 study is still fresh and should be continuing to receive broad and deep attention.
    Lastly the deaths and reproductive failures of these animals make it even more urgent for us to overturn all non-disclosure clauses: in private lawsuits brought against the industry where animal and human health is concerned; in the federal Halliburton Loophole; and in Pennsylvania’s Act 13. All three types of non-disclosure work together to actively prevent public health research about fracking impacts, and this is clearly intentional on the industry’s part. Let’s abolish all three types of non-disclosure clauses and prevent this industry from keeping its toxic secrets so secret. Public health matters.

  5. May 2, 2012 10:01 am

    Please Comment, Sign and Forward:

    “Ban Fracking in the Delaware River Watershed” Petition:

    Best Wishes for US All,

    Tim Devaney


  1. Toxic Secrets: Pennsylvania’s Act 13 Prevents Public Health Research « Protecting Our Waters

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: