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Friday, October 19, 2012

Study: Gas drilling makes people sick. More study urgently needed.

A study by Earthworks entitled Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania concludes that drilling for Marcellus shale gas in Pennsylvania has triggered respiratory problems, fatigue, severe headaches, and skin rashes among nearby residents, and the closer they live to drilling, the higher the incidence of such problems.

The study relied on health surveys of 108 individuals living in 55 households in 14 Pennsylvania counties, and on air and water testing that was conducted on the properties of a subset of survey participants (70 people in total) in order to identify the presence of pollutants that might be linked to both gas development and health symptoms.  In total, 34 air tests and 9 water tests were conducted at 35 households in 9 counties.

The main conclusions of the report are:

1.      Contaminants associated with oil and gas development are present in air and water in many communities where development is occurring.
2.      Many residents have developed health symptoms that they did not have before—indicating the strong possibility that they are occurring because of gas development.
3.      By permitting widespread gas development without fully understanding its impacts to public health—and using that lack of knowledge to justify regulatory inaction—Pennsylvania and other states are risking the public’s health.

An industry spokesman questioned the study methodology. The report, however, was candid about its limitations, noting for example, that “this project did not investigate additional factors that can influence health conditions or cause symptoms (e.g., through structured control groups in non-impacted areas and in-depth comparative health history research).”

The results of the study are troubling.  The limitations of the study must be fully understood.  At a minimum, the report underscores something that is already acknowledged: the obvious need for further, rigorous scientific research on the health impacts of natural gas drilling.  It also points to the equally obvious need to immediately move to measures that minimize air and water emissions, like requirements to use best available pollution control technologies on drilling equipment; to use closed-loop, closed-container systems for handling drilling fluids, and ultimately to develop waterless, chemical-free fracking methods.  I discussed both topics a a recent talk in Washington D.C.

Without a healthy dose of science, the question of whether gas drilling makes people sick won’t go away; people may suffer avoidable harms; and the industry will face continued threats to its social license to operate.

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