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PA Public Health Assessment Finds Fracking Makes People Sick

August 30, 2013

Two doctors, along with biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber, put this week’s big story, “Pennsylvania Fracking Study Preliminary Results Released,” into its proper context as the tip of a health impacts iceberg. The short article below by Sandra Steingraber, PhD; Larysa Dyrszka, MD; and Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL, is a must-read.

It counters some of the misleading and inadequate coverage of the data slowly emerging, in the form of case histories, from one health clinic in just one of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties: Washington County, where fracking has been impacting people’s health at least since 2008.

While many news outlets overlooked some of the most significant findings, as well as the context, the story by Kevin Begos (AP) as it appeared in the Huffington Post included more detail, including air emissions from the MarkWest plant and other facilities that release toxins into the air:

A previous DEP report found some of the state’s highest levels of gas drilling air pollution in Washington County, including toxic compounds such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde. Other gas drilling firms and companies operate in the area, too.

Long-term exposure to benzene can affect the immune system and cause cancer, while toluene can cause excessive sleepiness, confusion and, with long-term exposure, brain damage.

The post below originally appeared on EcoWatch:

By Sandra Steingraber, PhD; Larysa Dyrszka, MD; Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL

Early results from an on-the-ground, public health assessment in Washington County, PA, indicate that environmental contamination is occurring near natural gas drilling sites and is the likely cause of associated illnesses. We are alarmed by these preliminary findings. They show that—after only six years of drilling—human exposure is occurring and people are getting sick. The presence of any sick people gives lie to industry claims that high volume hydraulic fracturing—fracking—is “safe.”

Dr. Sheila Bushkin, Sandra Steingraber, and Dr. Larysa Dyrska, all of Concerned Health Professionals of NY.

Dr. Sheila Bushkin, Sandra Steingraber, and Dr. Larysa Dyrska, all of Concerned Health Professionals of NY.

Focusing on the early low numbers from this ongoing study, however—as does a recent Associated Press story—is misleading. The 27 cases documented by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project team are not a surveyed sample of the region’s population, nor were they recruited to be part of a study. They are patients from a single rural clinic who came in seeking help. As such, these early figures could easily be the leading edge of a rising wave of human injury.

Furthermore, these 27 people represent only those suffering acute problems. Chronic illnesses can take years to manifest. Mesothelioma from asbestos, thyroid cancer from radiation, mental retardation from lead poisoning, birth defects from the rubella virus: all these now-proven connections began with a handful of case studies that, looking back, were just the tip of an iceberg.

We know that many of the chemicals released during drilling and fracking operations—including benzene—are likewise slow to exert their toxic effects. Detection of illness can lag by years or decades, as did the appearance of illnesses in construction workers and first responders from exposure to pollution in the 9/11 World Trade Center response and clean-up.

The early results from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project study implicate air contamination as the likely cause of three-quarters of the associated illnesses so documented. In some cases, starkly elevated levels of fracking-related air pollutants were found in the air inside of people’s homes. This is an unacceptable problem:  breathing is mandatory and, while a drinking water source might be replaced, air cannot.

A minority of cases suffered from likely exposures to tainted water, but these low numbers are not reassuring. Many exposures related to natural gas extraction increase over time. First come airborne exposures, as seen in Washington County and around the country where drilling and fracking is taking place. In a small percentage of communities near drilling operations, water contamination also takes place immediately due to failure of the well casings. But, more often, water contamination is a delayed response. Well casings continue to fail as they age—up to 60 percent over 30 years—and, as they do, we expect health effects from waterborne contaminants to rise and spread to more communities.

Thus, each well is potentially the center of an expanding circle of illness. At first there are only a few cases, but the ultimate result may be widespread contamination.

In the Associate Press story, the gas industry argues that lives are saved by cleaner burning natural gas. Even if there is any truth in that claim, saving U.S. lives from emissions from shamefully antiquated coal plants should not require sacrificing unconsenting children and families to contaminated air and water from fracked wells and the transportation of gas. Creating new health hazards to replace the old is unethical when clean, safe, renewable forms of energy exist.

Given that exposures and illness increase over time and given that many instances of contamination and illness related to fracking never come to light due to non-disclosure agreements with the industry, we cannot accurately quantify the extent of our problems with gas drilling. We do know they are here, and we have every reason to expect that they are not yet fully visible and they are growing.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

Confronting Media Bias in Reporting on Fracking

As Sharon Wilson, aka “Texas Sharon,” the award-winning blogger about fracking from the Barnett Shale to the Marcellus Shale, put it in a tweet, “This shows what we’ve been telling them for years: fracking is sickening.”

Sharon took another step and analyzed the media bias in the reporting on the Pennsylvania health assessment here: “Mainstream Media’s Fracking Bias is Showing in Health Impact Reporting.”

An excerpt:

Mainstream Media How To for Report on Fracking:

  1. Fracking impacts. APPLY RIGOR HERE
  2. Anecdotes to make fracking look safe: DO NOT APPLY RIGOR HERE
  3. Give false choices

Last word: it will take tremendous effort on our part to point out that media bias and correct it. But don’t give up: some reporters and editors are capable of change if the bias is deftly pointed out. Only some of it is a result of economic influence; much of it is unconscious. Contact media professionals at the Columbia School of Journalism and elsewhere for help in systematizing the effort.

  1. October 8, 2013 4:09 pm

    Clean air and healthy fish are a little more important than my Ford 150. Could we, please, get back to helping, and warning our neighbors, instead of bullshitting, coughing and sneezing our neighbors into inaction and, generally, trashing on each other 24/7 for the sake of finding terrorists? We’re making more terrorists than we are finding. All we need to do is be observant and watch the money.


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