Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fracking: A Medically Irresponsible Practice
By: Evelyn Knowles

What Is It?
Induced hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a mechanism by which natural gases can be extracted from the earth. The event of water naturally forcing open large cracks in shale is nothing new geologically, but when this event is induced by injecting high-velocity water, sand, and chemicals into the shale, there are indisputable chemical repercussions which subsequently affect the physical health of the surrounding environment and residents. While the chemical components account for only a fraction of a percent of the total volume of fracturing fluid injected into the shale, the health consequences of exposure to even the present quantity of chemicals range from kidney damage to increased risk of cancer.

Who Does It?
Schlumberger, Haliburton, and Sanjel are just a few of the billion-dollar corporations that perform hydraulic fracturing. Like other forms of oil drilling, fracking is not sustainable (you can only use it on any given well a very limited number of times), however it is extremely profitable. The oil companies are making powerful offers to states to lease land upon which to drill, offering thousands of dollars per month to land owners for a lease. In fact, Ohio was offered a total of over $180 million from oil companies for drilling leases in state parks and forests.

Naturally, those who hold fracking in their best fiscal interest declare that the practice is completely safe. But some organizations beg to differ. According to this report from 2011 by the US Environmental Working Group (EWG), “contrary to industry’s insistence that hydraulic fracturing is safe for underground water supplies… hydraulic fracturing poses significant risks to the drinking water sources on which more than 100 million Americans depend.” Toxic chemicals leeching into the ground water isn’t the only potential risk. Evaporation processes can even contaminate nearby air, creating risky environments particularly for on-site employees. Immediate health risks for employees include chemical burns to the skin, but accidental inhalation or repeated exposure to these substances could also cause longitudinal damage.

Why is it Dangerous?
While many fracking policies require safeguards such as cementing fractures to prevent chemicals from leeching into the soil and groundwater, these practices can never be foolproof. Primarily, hydraulic fracturing happens naturally all the time, and it is very possible that a natural (un-cemented) fracture could interrupt an induced fracture, allowing the fluid chemicals to leave the cemented well and make it into the ground. The pipes used in the collection of the gases themselves have also been reported to break on occasion, also leading to contamination with compounds such as methane. Unfortunately, due to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Fracking is not subject to EPA rigorous chemical monitoring. This allows drilling companies more leeway in what they put into the fracking fluid and inject into the ground. For those residing near hydraulic fracturing sites, this means that any number of dangerous chemical could be in the air they breathe and the water they drink, causing major health issues.

What Are the Health Risks?
Potential chemical contamination from fracking fluids, either in the groundwater or the air, pose serious potential health risks. While companies are not required to report the chemical components in fracking fluids, compounds such as benzene, toluene, hydrochloric acid, and methanol are but a few of the hundreds of chemicals potentially present. According to the Health Protection Agency, repeated toluene exposure could be very detrimental to an individual’s health. “Distal renal tubular acidosis has been associated with abusers of toluene… Muscle weakness, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms and are thought [to] be due to an electrolyte imbalance caused by the renal acidosis.” Many of the other chemicals commonly used in fracking fluids such as benzene trigger health issues that in turn also cause dangerous chemical imbalances. Residents who live near to drilling sites have not uncommonly reported similar symptoms, along with foul-smelling or even flammable tap water. Medically speaking, exposing surrounding people to such dangerous chemicals (many of which are also known carcinogens) is irresponsible on the part of the drilling companies and should be ceased altogether. Unfortunately, there is simply no way to ensure the safety of residents living near fracking sites. This is why people who live in fracking environments are encouraged to keep a close eye on their personal health by taking regular checkups.

The Response
Resident resistance to nearby fracking has been in the news often recently, particularly in New York where a moratorium on Fracking is about to expire last month. Sandra Steingraber, PhD ecologist has been on the front lines of resisting fracking in New York. “When you blow up the bedrock and inject it with toxic chemicals,” Steingraber states, “you cannot control or fix what happens.” Even with all of the precautions that drilling companies can take, many residents feel that the risks of fracking are still far too great and the entire practice is socially irresponsible.

The number of lawsuits against companies performing hydraulic fracturing is rising. People living near fracking sites, or employees who handle the toxic fluids, are making more and more noise with regards to the health detriments caused by the practice. Initially performed in the mid 20th century, the negative effects of fracking were not immediately known. But modern analysis and technology has made it possible to thoroughly investigate the damage that induced hydraulic fracturing can do. A socially irresponsible endeavor, many people feel that they have a duty and responsibility to stop drilling companies in this enterprise for the good of the environment and the people. 

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