Sep 6, 2013
Sandra Steingraber and Dr. Kathleen Nolan
As Gov. Andrew Cuomo sends Health Commissioner Nirav Shah around the country to look at the health impacts of fracking, we hope he is looking at Washington County, Pa. Early results from an on-the-ground public health assessment indicate that environmental contamination is occurring near natural gas drilling sites and is the likely cause of associated illnesses.
This is alarming. According to this assessment, in one small county of about 200,000 people, 27 people thought they were getting sick and went to a single rural health clinic and fracking was determined to be a plausible cause.
Since drilling has only been going on for six years, it does not include chronic illnesses that can take years to manifest.
While the industry points to these numbers and says it’s “only” 27 people, the presence of any people gives a lie to industry claims that fracking is “safe.”
The 27 cases documented by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project team are not a surveyed sample of the region’s population, nor were they recruited to be part of a study. They are patients from a single rural clinic who came in seeking help. As such, these early figures could easily be the leading edge of a rising wave of human injury.
Mesothelioma from asbestos, thyroid cancer from radiation, mental retardation from lead poisoning, birth defects from the rubella virus — all these now-proven connections began with a handful of case studies that, looking back, were just the tip of an iceberg. We know that many of the chemicals released during drilling and fracking operations — including benzene — are likewise slow to exert their toxic effects. Detection of illness can lag by years or decades, as did the appearance of illnesses in construction workers and first responders from exposure to pollution in the 9/11 World Trade Center response and cleanup.
The early results from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project study implicate air contamination as the likely cause of three-quarters of the associated illnesses so documented. In some cases, starkly elevated levels of fracking-related air pollutants were found in the air inside of people’s homes. This is an unacceptable problem: breathing is mandatory and, while a drinking water source might be replaced, air cannot.
A minority of cases suffered from likely exposures to tainted water, but these low numbers are not reassuring. Water contamination often takes a while to appear. Well casings continue to fail as they age — up to 60 percent over 30 years — and, as they do, we expect health effects from waterborne contaminants to rise and spread to more communities.
Given that exposures and illness increase over time and given that many instances of contamination and illness related to fracking never come to light due to non-disclosure agreements with the industry, we cannot accurately quantify the extent of our problems with gas drilling. But Washington County shows that they are here, and we have every reason to expect that they are not yet fully visible and they are growing.
We hope Cuomo and Shah are watching.
Steingraber is a distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, and Nolan is a physician and bioethicist working with Catskill Mountainkeeper.