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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fracking's health risks are showing and must be minimized - now

Does fracking makes people sick?  The question of whether hydraulic fracturing impacts public health is an essential one that must be answered definitively - and quickly. But troubling data is emerging on health impacts of localized air pollution from drilling operations.

Preliminary results from a study by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project in Washington County show:
27 cases where people in Washington County believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water and the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full survey of the area, just cases with plausible exposures.
Volatilizing chemicals from open impoundments of drilling wastewater and drill cuttings are one likely source of the airborne irritation. Compressor stations and other gas-related equipment are other likely sources.

The Washington County project is not the first to report these kinds of localized harms.

To be sure, there are significant positive public health impacts from using natural gas compared to coal - locally, regionally, and globally. They need to be acknowledged. But these localized impacts from natural gas development are real - and avoidable. The path to minimizing them is straightforward.

Mandatory use of best available control technology (BACT) on all gas-related equipment is an absolute must. Open impoundments for storing drill cuttings and drilling waste, and for all drilling-related wastewater, should be outlawed, and closed-loop, closed container systems must be required. The latter has been recommended by the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and some companies are already using these systems. It must become the standard, now. 

Until these commonsense measures are required, health-related fears about fracking will continue and grow as more wells are drilled and more compressor stations are built.   The industry's social license to operate will continue to be in jeopardy. And most importantly - people will suffer needlessly. That is simply unacceptable. 

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