Assessing the risks of fracking, New York needs to be diligent where Pennsylvania has been careless by David Brown, March 9, 2013, Times Union
The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project meets with patients who believe their health has been, or could be, affected by natural gas drilling. In both home and office visits, we see people with an array of adverse health signs and symptoms that appeared together with plausible exposure pathways to natural gas activities. Typically, neither they nor their physicians know what to do. Based on our own observations, here are my suggestions for New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah and his team as they review possible health impacts of fracking.
First, take a close look at air. When we began our project, I thought that water would be the exposure pathway of highest concern. While contaminated water certainly poses significant risk, I now believe that air pollution is the more likely pathway of exposures in many cases. There are at least a dozen different sources of uncontrolled air emissions ranging from ponds of contaminated flow back, flaring wells, organic emissions from compressor stations, and dehydration devices, to spills and disposal of silica, frack fluids and flow back water during transportation and at illegal disposal sites. Of course, the problem with air exposures is this: How do you break the pathway? People cannot choose the air that they breathe. If an exposure occurs, the proper response is to stop the emission at the source. As we say in public health, “When uncertain, stop the exposures!”
Second, don’t forget about mixtures. Although we are making headway identifying individual agents in water and air near drilling operations, we’ve also learned that people are exposed to mixtures of chemicals. The effects of these are not necessarily predictable based on the properties of the individual ingredients acting alone. These chemical mixtures can produce potential synergistic interactions, with new and more severe effects than the effects of the individual chemicals.
Third, keep in mind that physicians typically have little experience with toxic exposures in air or water. Everything hangs on public health services. New York needs to consider the costs of a state and local public health infrastructure necessary to protect its rural population.
The most important thing I’ve learned from our work and would wish to share with you and your team is this: unlike other industries, there is no fence line with drilling and fracking operations. It’s an activity that turns communities into industrial zones. The people often placed at risk are not necessarily benefiting or employed by the gas extraction industry. They are free citizens who have had these risks imposed on them. No one, especially ourselves as public health officials, can assure people who live, work, or attend school near drilling and fracking operations that they are safe.
David Brown is a public health toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project [Emphasis added]