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Five Serious Health Risks Caused by Hydrofracking

It has been a lack of equal profit center for fossil fuel industries. At the Federal level, while all G20 countries have committed to reduce (with the intent to eliminate) fossil fuel use, the United States and other leading economic powers support the fossil fuel industry by providing over $17 billion dollars per year in average subsidies, while states contribute over $3 billion in cumulative subsidies per year. The financial support from governments is a contradiction to the global need for cleaner fuel alternatives.

While fracking currently employs approximately 1.7 million Americans, based on data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by the year 2035, the agency projects 3.5 million Americans will be employed directly or indirectly by mining. For communities that have been negatively impacted by fracking, the escalation instead of elimination of fossil fuel production has apparent and immediate costs that are threatening more than local livelihood.  

What is Hydrofracking?

Shale and rock formations are "tapped" by vertically drilling approximately 1-2 miles below the land surface, and then drilling horizontally for thousands of feet to access fuel deposits. The horizontal method allows for the installation of numerous wells to draw the fossil fuel (oil or natural gas). After a well is drilled, it is cemented, and small holes or perforations are created to pump a high-pressure mixture of water, sand, and additives (to reduce friction and corrosion).

In a 2015 report published by the World Energy Agency, the United States is poised to become the global leader in fossil fuel production, thanks to deposits and fracking methods. While the industrial method is defended as "safe" to both the environment and human health, it is a destructive and hazardous industry that poses an immediate threat to millions of Americans.

The Cost of Fracking by the Numbers

Per research and investigation conducted by the Environment America Research and Policy Center, the scale of environmental damage created by fracking sites is largely unknown by the public. In the April 2016 report entitled "Fracking by the Numbers: The Damage to Our Water, Land and Climate from a Decade of Dirty Drilling," the statistics were shared to demonstrate both the regional health impact, as well as the global implications of fracking.

The report revealed that:

  • 14 billion gallons of fresh water have been directly damaged since 2005.
  • 679,000 acres of land have been polluted and damaged from 2005 to 2015.
  • 239 billion gallons of toxic wastewater was produced in fracking operations in 2014 alone.
  • 5.3 billion pounds of 'global warming' pollutants have been created by the American fracking industry since 2014.

The argument by the fossil fuel energy industry is that environmental protection laws are followed to reduce the risk of contamination. However, in 2014 alone, the U.S. Health Department collected a record number of penalties from fossil fuel producers, earning $2.64 million in fines, according to the New York Time's article "The Downside of the Boom."

Five Health Risks Associated with Hydrofracking

Aside from the substantial and often irreparable damage to agricultural land, which can remain unusable after fracking, there are five health risks that are directly attributable to the pollution that is generated by fracking wells.

1. Air Pollution and Respiratory Illness

During the hydrofracking process, there are chemicals and natural gas emissions and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that impact respiratory health for both communities located immediately adjacent to wells, and for those that are hundreds of miles away.  Increased rates of asthma, shortness of breath, and lung disease (including lung cancer) rates are noted by local health authorities. An additional risk for drill workers involves the inhalation of silica fracking sand, which creates permanent lung damage.

2. Toxic Chemicals in Water and Soil

Brine is frequently used during fossil fuel production on fracking sites. The additives can include inorganic chemicals, heavy metals, salts, and other compounds that do not dissolve or break down after a spill, or after a well has been closed. Radium deposits are known to build up in the soil at fracking sites, contaminating groundwater and soil. Exposure to the compound can increase acute leukopenia, anemia, necrosis of the jaw, bone and nasal passage tumors, and other health risks.

3.  Cancer

All fossil fuels, and the chemicals that are used as additives during the hydrofracking process, are known carcinogens. These compounds include benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Sustained exposure to the carcinogens in the soil, air, groundwater, or within the food supply (fish, agriculture, and produce) can contribute to substantially increased risks of cancer.

4. Birth Defects

PAHs have been directly linked to fetal development delay and birth defects. The compounds are attributed to poor heart, brain, and nervous system development when the fetus is exposed regularly to pollutants.

5.  Blood Disorders and Anemia

Individuals living in communities with hydrofracking sites have been measured with higher levels of benzene. The chemical is responsible for damaging organ function and bone marrow, and is a contributing factor to the development of chronic anemia when humans are exposed regularly.

While the fossil fuel industry in the United States alone generated 135 billion in profits for the top five producing oil companies, it is offset by the public cost of environmental clean-up, as well as short and long-term health impacts. One example from 2008 estimated the public health costs at $10 million dollars for one single site that generated air and water pollution at the Arkansas Fayetteville Shale region. How big is the problem? In Louisiana, fracking contamination sites have reportedly transferred billions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico from over 1,200 drill sites.

In the short term, the economic benefit of fracking does not outweigh the health cost and pollution to American communities. Long-term health effects and costs are still unknown, but what is understood is the finite supply of fossil fuels and that the inherent environmental and health risks warrant significant and immediate changes. A good place to start would be a reduction or elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, and economic support for research, development, and mass implementation of green energy alternatives.


Posting for a Community member:

"Very good article. I know of the effects first hand because I worked as an Environmental Health and Safety Specialist in this field for 4 years. After seeing the effects first hand, I decided to move into Renewable Energy."

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