Study on fracking health risks reinforces call for moratorium

By Bernhard Debatin, The Athens News

A new study, titled "The Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health," shows that fracking fluids, methane gas exposure and other gas-drilling related contamination can have a serious impact on the health of both humans and animals.
The authors of the study, private practice veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald of the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, call fracking "an uncontrolled heath experiment on an enormous scale" (p. 51). Their research investigated 24 different sites with gas wells, 18 of which were horizontal hydro-fractured wells. The researchers observed and documented severe changes in health of both humans and animals living close to these sites. The majority of the observed animals were cows; other animals included horses, goats, llamas, chickens, dogs, cats, and koi.
Bamberger and Oswald interviewed animal owners affected by gas drilling in six different states (Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas). In addition, they obtained lab test results and data from drilling companies and state regulatory agencies. The most striking finding of the study is the death of more than 100 cows, caused by their exposure to fracking fluids or drinking of fracking wastewater that was dumped or leaked into freshwater sources. The researchers also frequently found reproductive problems, particularly lack of breeding and stillborn animals, often with congenital deformations. Other health effects on both animals and humans encompassed a wide range of symptoms, such as upper-respiratory symptoms and burning of the eyes, vomiting and diarrhea, rashes, nosebleeds, headaches and neurological problems.

The research provides strong evidence for "several possible links between gas drilling and negative health effects" (p. 54). Two cases provided a direct comparison between animals that were exposed to contaminated water and other animals from the same herd that were not exposed it. This created a situation similar to an experiment with an affected group and a control group, with the result that immediate and devastating effects of fracking chemicals on animals could be clearly demonstrated.
In one heard of cows, 60 head were exposed to fracking chemicals in their drinking water. Of those, 21 died and 16 did not reproduce. The remaining 36 cows that were not exposed to the chemicals had no changes in health or reproduction. A similar situation was observed on a different farm, where 140 cows were exposed to fracking chemicals. Half of them died, and the surviving cows had high rates of stillborn and deformed calves, while the remaining 60 unexposed head had no health issues whatsoever.

While many cases studied in the investigation were caused by unintended spills and leakage, it is noteworthy that some animal owners also observed that cats and dogs became ill or died from exposure to wastewater that was purposely spread on roads. The animals were apparently attracted by the salt content of the fluid.

This is particularly concerning because Ohio, according to ORC 1509.226, allows the application of fracking wastewater on roads for dust and ice control as a legitimate form of disposal — a practice that I call the "surface application loophole." Some states, such as Pennsylvania, do not even allow the disposal of fracking wastewater in injection wells, yet Ohio is importing large amounts of wastewater for disposal.

Local authorities may be quite inclined to issue a permit for wastewater application on roads because it appears to be a cheap and easy way to get dust control in summer and road salting in winter. This has strong precedent throughout southeast Ohio, where for years toxic bottom ash from coal power plans has been used as skid control. The city of Athens abandoned this practice in 2010.

Bamberger and Oswald emphasize the sentinel function of animals for human health impacts: House pets and livestock are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine. Given the proven dangers of wastewater to animals, large and small, its willy-nilly distribution on roads must also be regarded as a threat to the health of children and expectant mothers, as well as anybody else who would be frequently exposed to it.

In their discussion of the results, the authors of the study point out that systematic and conclusive research is extremely difficult due to nondisclosure agreements and lack of proper pre- and post-drilling testing of air and water. The fact that drilling companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking and drilling fluids exacerbates the situation.

Bamberger and Oswald also strongly criticize the current handling and disposing fracking wastewater as a practice that unnecessarily exposes humans and animals to toxic substances. They are calling for a ban on shale gas drilling "for the protection of public health" and for much stricter regulations in states where fracking is still allowed, including "full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans." (p. 71 f.)

We can only hope that this common-sense approach will outweigh the short-term interest in quick profits and seemingly cheap domestic energy. It is time for Ohio to enact a moratorium on fracking!

Editor's note: Bernhard Debatin of Athens is a professor of journalism at Ohio University. He is a founding member of the group Slow Down Fracking in Athens County (SD-FRAC) and main contributor to the SD-FRAC website.