Technically known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is designed to open up passageways to reservoirs of natural gas or oil. It’s also deeply controversial, and a new comprehensive report – spotted by Rolling Stone – has brought all these hazards to human health together.
Publishing their layman-readable, fifth edition compendium on the risks and harms of fracking, the Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY) and the Physicians for Social Responsibility have come to yet another sobering conclusion.
Looking at all potential hazards, their review, which reviewed more than 1,300 peer-reviewed studies, found that “fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality.”
“There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly.”
One of the report’s principle investigators, Dr Sandra Steingraber – public health biologist and co-founder of CHPNY – told IFLScience that, much like lead paint or smoking in airplanes, “fracking is not safe and cannot be made safe by any regulatory framework that we examined.”
She added “that people have a right to know about the risks to their health that they are compelled to endure from living near fracking operations.”
Fracking indubitably contaminates drinking water through spills, waste discharges, and subterranean migration of chemicals into water wells. It also causes localized air pollution and smog, and its destructive rearrangement of the subterranean realm triggers releases of a myriad of other, naturally occurring chemical compounds.
This brings with it direct health risks, which are far more varied than you probably realize. Although the magnitude and prevalence of these risks vary wildly from place to place – and studies are still nailing down the specifics – individual papers make for some anxiety-inducing reading.
Here are two particularly egregious examples, for tasters: In Pennsylvania, there was a 40 percent increase in risk of preterm births for mothers living near fracking sites, and people living near sites in Colorado found elevated incidences of congenital heart defects. Respiratory problems, including those with asthma, are also noted to be prevalent.
Around 55 carcinogens are known to be released during fracking operations too, 20 of which are associated with leukemia or lymphoma. Fracking’s even linked to increased radon levels, with this naturally occurring radioactive material increasingly finding its way into people’s homes.
The researchers also uncovered several indirect effects of fracking that took them by surprise.
Steingraber explained that “the influx of temporary fracking workers into a community is associated with increases in sex trafficking, violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, traffic fatalities, and loss of affordable housing with attendant homelessness. Public schools also suffer.”
Those working on fracking sites don’t fare well either: Occupational fatalities in the industry are four to seven times the national average, and normal safety procedures don’t apply to the oil and gas industry due to legal exemptions.
The report also underscores the contribution of natural gas to anthropogenic climate change, although economics alone suggest that natural gas – along with equally affordable solar – will dominate the energy industry in the coming years.
Wastewater disposal by any means is the primary cause of the recent uptick in induced earthquakes in the US, including disposal linked to fracking. These aren’t always small quakes either: Wastewater disposal has been associated with tremors registering as high as 5.8M.
The authors of the report are also at pains to point out that the historical context of this report – published at a time of “deep environmental entrenchment”, climate change denial, major protective rollbacks, and the sidelining of academics – cannot be ignored.
“With 17 million people now living within a mile from a drilling and fracking site, there is a slow-motion public health crisis in the making,” said Steingraber.