PHILADELPHIA – A coalition of academic researchers in the United States is preparing to shine a rigorous scientific light on the polarized and often emotional debate over whether using hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas is hazardous to human health.
Some five years after the controversial combination of fracking and horizontal drilling in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and surrounding states got under way, a team of toxicologists from the University of Pennsylvania is leading a national effort to study the health effects of fracking.
The university’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology has organized a working group with researchers at other top universities including Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina to investigate and analyze reports of nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties and other ills from people who live near natural gas drilling sites, compressor stations or wastewater pits.
The aim is to bring academic discipline to the unresolved national debate, which pits an industry that denies any link between fracking and environmental contamination against those who assert that fracking poisons air and water with natural and man-made chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.
“There is an enormous amount of rhetoric on both sides,” said Trevor M. Penning, head of the Penn toxicology center and the driving force behind the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Hydrofracking Working Group. “We felt that because we are situated in Pennsylvania, we had a duty to get on top of what was known and what was not known.”
Dr. Penning has asked 17 centers affiliated with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to take part in different aspects of research on the health effects of fracking. Ten have so far accepted, he said in an interview.
Among the questions to be answered, Dr. Penning said, is the toxicity of the “flowback” water that emerges from gas wells, which contains a mix of man-made and naturally occurring chemicals. The drilling technique forces a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure a mile or more underground to fracture shale formations and release the natural gas – mainly methane.
Determining whether flowback water or fracking fluid is dangerous to health is challenging if the chemicals and their combinations are not fully disclosed, he said. The teams will also look at whether air quality is dangerously affected by the flaring of waste gases, and whether the industry’s extensive use of diesel fuel for trucks, drills and compressor stations is polluting the air near gas installations to unhealthy levels.
“We don’t know if the levels we are dealing with are hazardous,” he said. “We think it’s unsafe, but we don’t know it’s unsafe.”
The first project, based on work at Penn, surveyed residents in the Marcellus Shale regions of Pennsylvania about their health symptoms and whether they believed their symptoms were related to local gas drilling. Results are expected to be published in mid-February.
Future projects, which depend on obtaining financing from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, would include working with a cancer center at the University of Texas to compare the heavily drilled Barnett Shale in that state with the Marcellus and to determine whether state laws on gas drilling have taken public health into consideration.
Also awaiting financing is a plan to use a Harvard University mapping tool to correlate natural gas installations with reports of sickness and a proposal to study the health outcomes of targeted populations by examining billing data from insurance companies.
Dr. Penning said the planned research projects would not duplicate the continuing work of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting its own research into whether fracking contaminates water supplies. That study is not explicitly focused on the health effects of any contamination, he said.
Asked why academics are only now proposing a systematic study of fracking’s health effects about five years after the shale boom began in earnest in Pennsylvania, Dr. Penning replied, “Politics.”
With a strongly pro-industry administration led by Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, and a Republican-controlled legislature that has recently approved a gas-drilling law friendly to industry, state financing has not been available for research into whether drilling activities have negative health effects, Dr. Penning said.
“Academia can only do work if there’s funding to do that work,” he said.
The projects may guide industry and government worldwide in developing shale gas reserves, which are expected to become a major global energy source.
“The Marcellus Shale is a microcosm of what’s going on across the globe,” Dr. Penning said.
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