By Bernhard Debatin
A new study on 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 study, conducted by private practice veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald of the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, 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 over 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 qualitative nature of the study and its concentration on a limited number of cases make generalizations difficult. However, the research provides strong evidence for “several possible links between gas drilling and negative health effects” [p. 54]. In two cases, a direct comparison was possible between animals that were exposed to contaminated water and other animals from the same herd that were not exposed it, demonstrating clearly the immediate and devastating effects of fracking chemicals:
Two cases involving beef cattle farms inadvertently provided control and experimental groups. In one case, a creek into which wastewater was allegedly dumped was the source of water for 60 head, with the remaining 36 head in the herd kept in other pastures without access to the creek. Of the 60 head that were exposed to the creek water, 21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. Of the 36 that were not exposed, no health problems were observed, and only one cow failed to breed. At another farm, 140 head were exposed when the liner of a wastewater impoundment was allegedly slit, as reported by the farmer, and the fluid drained into the pasture and the pond used as a source of water for the cows. Of those 140 head exposed to the wastewater, approximately 70 died and there was a high incidence of stillborn and stunted calves. The remainder of the herd (60 head) was held in another pasture and did not have access to the wastewater; they showed no health or growth problems. These cases approach the design of a controlled experiment, and strongly implicate wastewater exposure in the death, failure to breed, and reduced growth rate of cattle. [p. 60]
Canary in the Coalmine
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 spread on roads, because they were attracted by the high salt content in the fluids. This is particularly concerning because Ohio allows the application of fracking wastewater on roads for dust and ice control as a legitimate form of disposal — a practice that I earlier dubbed the surface application loophole (see also ORC 1509.226).
While other states, such as Pennsylvania, do not even allow the disposal of fracking wastewater in injection wells, 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. Power plants give it away for free “to be good neighbors” (as an employee of the Gavin Power Plant put it in a presentation) while it provides a convenient way to dispose of burdensome waste. Ohio University’s Lausche Heating Plant did the same until 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.
A Ban on Fracking
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 of fracking wastewater as a practice that unnecessarily exposes humans and animals to toxic substances. They come to a very simple and clear conclusion:
Without complete studies, given the many apparent adverse impacts on human and animal health, a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health. In states that nevertheless allow this process, the use of commonsense measures to reduce the impact on human and animals must be required in addition to 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.
M. Bamberger & R.E. Oswald: Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health. In: NEW SOLUTIONS, Vol. 22(1) 51-77, 2012
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