Statement on Preliminary Findings from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project Study Press Release by Larysa Dyrszka, MD; Kathleen Nolan, MD, MSL; and Sandra Steingraber, PhD, August 27, 2013
Early results from an on-the-ground, public health assesment in Washington County, Pennsylvania, indicate that environmental contamination is occurring near natural gas drilling sites and is the likely cause of associated illnesses. We are alarmed by these preliminary findings. They show that—after only six years of drilling—human exposure is occurring and people are getting sick. The presence of any sick people gives lie to industry claims that high volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is “safe.”
Focusing on the early low numbers from this ongoing study, however—as does a recent Associated Press story—is misleading. The 27 cases documented by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project team are not a surveyed sample of the region’s population, nor were they recruited to be part of a study. They are patients from a single rural clinic who came in seeking help. As such, these early figures could easily be the leading edge of a rising wave of human injury.
Furthermore, these 27 people represent only those suffering acute problems. Chronic illnesses can take years to manifest. Mesothelioma from asbestos, thyroid cancer from radiation, mental retardation from lead poisoning; birth defects from the rubella virus: all these now-proven connections began with a handful of case studies that, looking back, were just the tip of an iceberg. We know that many of the chemicals released during drilling and fracking operations—including benzene—are likewise slow to exert their toxic effects. Detection of illness can lag by years or decades, as did the appearance of illnesses in construction workers and first responders from exposure to pollution in the 9/11 World Trade Center response and clean-up.
The early results from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project study implicate air contamination as the likely cause of three-quarters of the associated illnesses so documented. In some cases, starkly elevated levels of fracking-related air pollutants were found in the air inside of people’s homes. This is an unacceptable problem: breathing is mandatory and, while a drinking water source might be replaced, air cannot.
A minority of cases suffered from likely exposures to tainted water, but these low numbers are not reassuring. Many exposures related to natural gas extraction increase over time. First come airborne exposures, as seen in Washington County and around the country where drilling and fracking is taking place. In a small percentage of communities near drilling operations, water contamination also takes place immediately due to failure of the well casings. But, more often, water contamination is a delayed response. Well casings continue to fail as they age—up to 60 percent over 30 years—and, as they do, we expect health effects from waterborne contaminants to rise and spread to more communities.
Thus, each well is potentially the center of an expanding circle of illness. At first there are only a few cases, but the ultimate result may be widespread contamination.
In the AP story, the gas industry argues that lives are saved by cleaner burning natural gas. Even if there is any truth in that claim, saving U.S. lives from emissions from shamefully antiquated coal plants should not require sacrificing unconsenting children and families to contaminated air and water from fracked wells and the transportation of gas. Creating new health hazards to replace the old is unethical when clean, safe, renewable forms of energy exist.
Given that exposures and illness increase over time and given that many instances of contamination and illness related to fracking never come to light due to non-disclosure agreements with the industry, we cannot accurately quantify the extent of our problems with gas drilling. We do know they are here, and we have every reason to expect that they are not yet fully visible and they are growing.
November 18, 2012, Encana rig drilling west of Rosebud church, gas well later frac’d above Base of Groundwater Protection.
First health study on fracking outlines potential effects by Canadian Plastics, August 26, 2013
A project examining the local health impacts from natural gas drilling is providing some of the first preliminary numbers about people who may be affected, and the results challenge the industry position that no one suffers but also suggest the problems may not be as widespread as some critics claim. The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP) has been trying to help people who feel they’ve been sickened by natural gas drilling or processing for about 18 months in one county south of Pittsburgh.
The work is potentially important because it’s one of the first long-term attempts to monitor drilling-related health impacts, and it could help other groups identify possible symptoms. The project found 27 cases where people in Washington County believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water and the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full survey of the area, just cases so far with plausible exposures. The EHP group is trying to help those who have been exposed to drilling-related air or water pollution, toxicologist David Brown told The Associated Press, adding that they’re finding “an array of symptoms” in some people who live close to either wells or processing stations.
There are some surprises: Air pollution seems to be more of a threat than water pollution, and the huge processing stations that push gas into national pipelines may be more of a problem than the drilling sites themselves. The processing stations can handle large volumes of gas from hundreds of wells. … Brown said one of the most worrying findings was the extremely high levels of air pollution found inside two homes that are about 1,000 feet from a gas processing station. Western Pennsylvania tends to have high levels of air pollution, but the levels found in the two homes were up to four times higher than the local average.
Fracking effects: A long-term study of drilling’s impact on health fracking by Kevin Begos, August 25, 2013, The Associated Press in CTV News
A project examining the local health impacts from natural gas drilling is providing some of the first preliminary numbers about people who may be affected, and the results challenge the industry position that no one suffers but also suggest the problems may not be as widespread as some critics claim. The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has been trying to help people who feel they’ve been sickened by natural gas drilling or processing for about 18 months in one county south of Pittsburgh. The work is potentially important because it’s one of the first long-term attempts to monitor drilling-related health impacts, and it could help other groups identify possible symptoms.
The project found 27 cases where people in Washington County believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water and the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full survey of the area, just cases so far with plausible exposures. The EHP group is trying to help those who have been exposed to drilling-related air or water pollution, toxicologist David Brown told The Associated Press, adding that they’re finding “an array of symptoms” in some people who live close to either wells or processing stations.
There are some surprises: Air pollution seems to be more of a threat than water pollution, and the huge processing stations that push gas into national pipelines may be more of a problem than the drilling sites themselves. The processing stations can handle large volumes of gas from hundreds of wells. Washington County has a population of about 200,000, and about 700 natural gas wells have been drilled there in the past six years. It’s also home to large gas processing operations. … Greenstone said more work needs to be done to confirm that Washington County residents were affected by natural gas activity and not by other factors, but he called the project an “important start.”
The EHP group only counted cases where symptoms began after natural gas activity started, where there was a plausible source of exposure and where the individual didn’t have an underlying medical condition that was likely to have caused the symptoms. Brown said the project team is aware more work needs to be done on links between natural gas activities and health impacts. He said the work has been “a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” but they’ve made substantial progress. The work is preliminary, but there are other independent signs of problems related to the gas industry in Washington County.
John Poister, spokesman for the Departmental of Environmental Protection, said last week that the agency has ordered natural gas company MarkWest Energy Partners to submit a pollution control plan for one plant and would like to see the improvements “sooner rather than later.” … MarkWest, based in Denver, operates large natural gas facilities. A previous DEP report found some of the state’s highest levels of gas drilling air pollution in Washington County, including toxic compounds such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde. Other gas drilling firms and companies operate in the area, too. Long-term exposure to benzene can affect the immune system and cause cancer, while toluene can cause excessive sleepiness, confusion and, with long-term exposure, brain damage. … Brown said one of the most worrying findings was the extremely high levels of air pollution found inside two homes that are about 1,000 feet from a gas processing station. Western Pennsylvania tends to have high levels of air pollution, but the levels found in the two homes were up to four times higher than the local average. [Emphasis added]
Extreme Levels of Benzene Floating Around Gas Wells and Compressor Stations by Casey Junkins, August 25, 2013, The Intelligencer, Wheeling News-Register
Levels of carcinogenic benzene in the air 625 feet away from one natural gas drill site were so bad that a West Virginia University professor said he would recommend “respiratory protection.” Although these extreme levels of benzene lasted for only about three hours at one particular site, Michael McCawley, chairman of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at WVU, said the readings show that air emissions from Marcellus and Utica shale drilling need more regulation. A West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection study – which the state Legislature requested and which included McCawley’s work – does not recommend any change to existing state law, noting “no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time.” The report concludes there are no indications of a public health emergency or threat based on air quality monitoring data. However, McCawley said this is only a small part of the picture because the DEP study primarily dealt with whether the Legislature should extend the current 625-foot setback requirement for wells to be located away from occupied dwellings. “Not everything happens at the center of the well pad, the way the Legislature seems to believe,” McCawley said. “Distance is less important than monitoring.”
In multiple legal advertisements during the past few years, natural gas producers have confirmed the “potential to discharge” various amounts of these materials into the air on an annual basis from the operations at the natural gas wells and compressor stations:
carbon dioxide equivalent
McCawley studied the air near seven wells throughout the state, including five in Wetzel County, one in Brooke County and one in Marion County. Each well was in a different stage of development at the time he monitored them from July through October 2012. He said benzene was the primary constituent that he found at the sites, though he does not believe all of this came from the well itself. “It appears the diesel activity at the well sites could be contributing to the readings we are seeing at the sites,” McCawley said. For those who live in the rural areas near these well sites, such as Wetzel County Action Group member Bill Hughes, the time for more regulation is now. “These things are totally unregulated, unmonitored and unaccounted for,” Hughes said of the air emissions from well pads. “The diesel fumes are continuous and almost unbearable. My neighbors do not live in the country to constantly breath in diesel fumes.” In terms of the immediate hazards for those living in the vicinity of natural gas wells, McCawley said, “There is cause for concern.” However, he said the Legislature does not have to change any rules to protect public health because he believes the DEP already has all the authority it needs. The DEP study determines the agency already has the “regulatory framework” to reduce air emissions from drilling. McCawley would like to see this put into action. “The DEP could require companies to monitor their own air emissions as a way to control this,” he said. “That way, they could at least know when there is a problem.” McCawley also said he is working with the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department to conduct a long-term study regarding how drilling is impacting Ohio County’s air quality. “You are not necessarily going to see benzene at well sites. But we need to know what is being emitted, how it is being emitted, and for how long it is being emitted,” he said. Hughes agrees, noting his neighbors do not want their children or grandchildren to get sick from the fumes. “We will make no progress in minimizing the long-term regional air quality deterioration in our state until we formulate a process that requires all natural gas exploration and production companies to inventory and measure all emissions,” he added. [Emphasis added]
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September 20, 2006: Jessica Ernst letter to Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Nic Bayliss, begging for his help to do something to protect the children and public from Encana’s hydraulic fracturing (aka perforating, stimulation, completions) at Rosebud. A few paragraphs are copied below, with emphasis added:
The regulator’s final report provides the dissolved methane results, but not the gas composition and stable carbon isotopic fingerprinting results. This missing data concerns me. It is needed to see what other hydrocarbons were present then, and whether or not the fingerprints match those of EnCana’s gas. After this data collection occurred, a large, new vent was installed on top of the hamlet water reservoir. I am concerned that this vent will not mitigate the explosive risks, notably if heavier hydrocarbons are seeping into the water supply from deep, industrial sources.
I am also concerned about the bromodichloromethane, xylene, toluene and phthalates, etc. found in the hamlet. The regulator explains in their summary report that these chemicals are likely from construction of the new water reservoir, but they were still detected on June 6, 2006 after flushing and refilling the reservoir. Are drinking water reservoirs constructed with toxic chemicals? These chemicals are also used in the petroleum industry; phthalates might have come from the explosives that were blasted into the aquifers. This is not discussed in the regulator’s report. The regulator does not include a summary of the depths at which EnCana perforated and fractured above the base of groundwater protection, nor discuss the risks associated with EnCana’s potential explosions and fractures directly into the aquifers. The regulator does not discuss the extremely shallow surface casing (it protects groundwater) provided by EnCana in this area or the events of lost circulation and fresh water production.
I am concerned that public health and safety might be at risk from another explosion or adverse health impacts from ingesting and bathing in chlorinated hydrocarbons or chemicals used in the treatment of gas wells. As far as I know, it is not known what the long term health affects are of breathing unburned, chlorinated natural gas venting from taps. …
On September 14, 2006, Alberta Environment, Public Health and Wheatland County representatives went door to door in the hamlet of Rosebud to issue a water usage advisory because of detecting bromodichloromethane in the water supply. On June 6, 2006, a slightly higher concentration of bromodichloromethane was detected in the hamlet water; xylene, toluene and phthalates were also still detected even after the cleaning and flushing but no water usage advisory was issued then. I request please that your department carefully investigate the link between chlorinating water contaminated with hydrocarbons and the detection in the hamlet water supply of the carcinogen bromodichloromethane. It is reported to be a byproduct of coalbed methane production. …
Missing, incomplete or altered data during a serious groundwater contamination investigation is unacceptable. Rosebud is a lovely Alberta gem with patrons visiting from all over the world. I think it is vital to protect the health and safety of visitors and locals alike – here and elsewhere in the province. Please advise me as to whether or not your office will fulfill my requests, and if not, please refer me to the appropriate health services agency that is responsible to protect public health and safety in Alberta. I am doing my best to cope with a challenging situation. I never thought I would lose my safe water and become dependent on deliveries by truck. I never thought that my neighbours and friends would spend months on end trying to resolve an issue as basic as water safety. As a scientist I am baffled by the lack of proper protocols for natural gas contamination investigations and baseline testing for groundwater. The cumulative impacts of thousands of coalbed methane wells and associated treatments, explosions and fracturing are hard to fathom. I believe we can extract natural gas from coal while minimizing impacts. But this needs planning, work and an unwavering commitment to protect another resource owned by the people of Alberta: groundwater. This responsibility should not be downloaded onto ordinary citizens. Your swift assistance on this matter would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, I am sincerely appreciative of your time and assistance.
Jessica Ernst, B.Sc, M.Sc.,
President, Ernst Environmental Services
Alberta Health CEO Bayliss steps down by Darcy Henton, December 8, 2006, Edmonton Sun
Home distance from benzene sites linked to lymphoma risk by Andrew M. Seaman, July 29, 2013, Reuters. Even in small amounts, the chemical has been shown to alter DNA, the researchers write, and it is already linked to the development of leukemia, a blood cell cancer.
Researchers Find Cancer Risks Double When Two Carcinogens Present at ‘Safe’ Levels by John Davis, June 28, 2013, Texas Tech Today
Below snap: Alberta Health Services responds to Jessica Ernst’s 2012 request that health impacts from hydraulic fracturing are included in the reviews by Environment Canada and Council of Canadian Academies
Alberta Health Services to pay executive bonuses, says work ‘already done’ but refused to address concerns about serious negative health impacts caused by oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing
First Study of Its Kind Detects 44 Hazardous Air Pollutants at Gas Drilling Sites, With gas wells in some states being drilled near schools and homes, scientists see a need for better chemical disclosure laws and follow-up research
Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective by Theo Colborn, Carol Kwiatkowski, Kim Schultz, and Mary Bachran, accepted for publication in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, September 4, 2010. For many years, drillers have insisted that they do not use toxic chemicals to drill for gas, only guar gum, mud, and sand. While much attention is being given to chemicals used during fracking, our findings indicate that drilling chemicals can be equally, if not more dangerous.
A Toxic Spew: The near death of emergency room nurse Cathy Behr collection of articles, 2008
August 31, 2006, Trican hydraulically fracturing for EnCana (name recently changed to Encana) at Rosebud, during the government’s community-wide drinking water contamination investigation. EnCana had publicly stated it did not need to cooperate with the investigation.
Above photo: 2013 Encana compressors northwest of Rosebud
Photo below: June 2013, two Encana compressors about 400 metres from the Ernst property, just west of Rosebud.
May 26, 2005, Encana compressors northeast of Rosebud. The community was quickly surrounded without consultation about the air and noise pollution and related health impacts.
Above photo: May 26, 2005, multi EnCana compressors east of Rosebud.
2004, multi EnCana compressors south of Rosebud. Manager Mark Taylor had promised the community in a public meeting that EnCana would never have more than two compressors in a row but the company already had installed these. There are many more compressors around Rosebud.