May 2012, Week 5


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Tue, 29 May 2012 21:25:27 -0400
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Fracking Boom Spurs Environmental Audit

     As hydraulic fracturing unlocks new gas reserves,
     researchers struggle to understand its health

Helen Thompson
May 29, 2012

For Ohio, a Midwestern state hit hard by recession, the
promise of an energy boom driven by hydraulic
fracturing, or `fracking', would seem to be a sure route
to financial health. Far less certain is whether the
technique has an impact on human health. Fracking uses
high-pressure fluids to fracture shale formations deep
below ground, releasing the natural gas trapped within.
With the number of gas wells in Ohio that use fracking
set to mushroom from 77 to more than 2,300 in the next
three years, the state is the latest to try to regulate
a rapidly growing industry while grappling with a
serious knowledge gap. No one knows what substances -
and at what levels - people near the gas fields are
exposed to in the air and water, and what, if any,
health threat they might pose.

In a nod to those concerns, Ohio's legislature passed a
bill on 24 May, awaiting signing by the state governor
as Nature went to press, that requires companies to
disclose the chemicals they use during the fracking
process and during the construction and servicing of the
wells. However, the bill does not compel companies to
divulge a complete list of the ingredients in their
fracking fluid before it is pumped underground. Some of
those ingredients are deemed trade secrets, a position
that troubles environmental groups and increases the
problem for researchers trying to understand the risks.

"There is a real lack of data," says John Balbus, senior
adviser on public health at the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, who
spoke at a workshop organized by the Institute of
Medicine in Washington DC last month to discuss research
strategies for studying the health impacts of gas
extraction. "There's a lot of variability from region to
region, in the kinds of mixtures that need to be used
for the specific geology."

Fracking fluids are primarily water and sand, but they
also contain chemical additives that aid the horizontal
fracturing of shale and the release of natural gas. Some
components, such as citric acid and coffee grounds, are
benign, whereas others, such as benzene or toluene,
could cause chronic health problems at certain doses.
Waste water - fracking fluid mixed with groundwater
containing high levels of brine and traces of natural
radioactive elements - comes back to the surface during
the drilling process.

"The big threats to public health are in wastewater pits
and storage and also during transportation when you are
trucking around contaminated water," says Deborah
Swackhamer, an environmental chemist at the University
of Minnesota in St Paul. "You can have spills or leaks
or flooding."

With uneasiness growing about the increasing scale of
fracking in the United States, the pressure on companies
to be more forthcoming is growing. The Ohio bill would
allow a doctor to request proprietary information about
fracking fluid when treating a patient who shows signs
of exposure to a toxic chemical that might have come
from a gas well - but doctors must keep what they learn
confidential. An amendment to the bill supported by the
Ohio State Medical Association would allow doctors to
break the confidentiality rule when professional ethics
demands it.

"The end result of any legislation should not impact a
physician's ability to care for his/her patients," wrote
Timothy Maglione, senior director of government
relations for the medical association, in a letter to
the legislature dated 22 May.

A tougher national disclosure requirement is in the
works. Earlier this month the US Bureau of Land
Management released a draft version of its rules for
fracking operations on federal and Indian lands. Like
the Ohio bill, the rules allow companies to withhold
trade secrets, but they also put the burden on the firms
to convince the bureau that a trade-secret claim is
valid. Environmental groups say that even these rules
don't go far enough.

"There is no one chemical-disclosure provision out there
that gives the public enough information to know if
they're being exposed to something through natural-gas
drilling," says Thom Cmar, a Chicago-based attorney with
the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City.

Testing the air and water near fracking operations could
give a clearer indication of human exposures (see
`Riches, at a price'). A survey by the US Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) will include case studies in
five states where fracking occurs. The studies will draw
from existing water, air and soil data; test waste
water; analyse well design and construction; and conduct
toxicity tests. At two sites, the agency will compare
pre-drilling testing to post-drilling testing. The
study, now a year old, will run into 2014, but initial
results are expected by the end of this year.

But even after the environmental data from the EPA roll
in, there will still be a dearth of information on
effects on human health. "There really is nothing out
there in terms of well designed epidemiological
studies," says Madelon Finkel, an epidemiologist at the
Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

At last month's meeting in Washington, researchers from
the Geisinger Health System, which includes hospitals,
clinics and community practices in central and
northeastern Pennsylvania, announced a plan to use their
own 10-year database of electronic health records to map
health trends before and during drilling. The database
includes more than 2.6 million residents in a region
that has some of the highest concentrations of fracking
wells in the United States. "We can at least get a
surveillance-level snapshot of what some of the health
trends might be," says David Carey, director of
Geisinger's Weis Center for Research in Danville,

Other researchers hope to tap Geisinger's records for
joint projects. Brian Schwartz, an epidemiologist at
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, wants
to mine them for multiple health indicators, including
trends in asthma cases, which can serve as a bellwether
for air quality. His team will overlay these data with
computer models for environmental air quality based on
EPA monitoring data, which will provide a picture of
whether air quality around wells has changed as fracking
in the region has intensified and how, where and when
pollutants could be affecting asthma patients.

Robert Oswald, a pharmacologist at Cornell's College of
Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, is taking a
different tack: using animal-health reports as proxies
for humans. When farmers split their herds between
pastures close to and distant from fracking activity,
they create inadvertent experimental and control groups.
"They're sentinels for human health," says Oswald. "If
you want to look at reproductive problems, you might be
hard pressed to find 100 pregnant women living near a
wastewater impoundment pond, but we can probably find
100 pregnant cows."

His case survey, published in January (R. Oswald and M.
Bamberger New Solutions 22, 51-77; 2012), finds two
instances of correlation between gas-drilling activity
and mortality rates in livestock, but there are several
caveats, including small sample size, the fact that the
individual cases were all reported by different people,
and the fact that toxic sources unrelated to fracking
could explain the pattern.

Conducting controlled studies among people will be slow
and costly. But Finkel warns that questions about the
long-term effects of the fracking boom are too urgent to
ignore. "We don't know the impact on human health," she
says, "and living in blissful ignorance isn't a

Nature 485, 556-557 (31 May 2012) doi:10.1038/485556a


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