While the debate over the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing continues, there is now a concentrated interest in studying the possible health effects of living in communities where ‘fracking’ takes place. Communities in western and northern Pennsylvania offer a unique opportunity to start initial studies on the health effects of fracking.
_Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process of extracting natural gas by fracturing shale formation deep in the earth. Wells are drilled into shale or sand formations followed by explosives to begin breaking and perforating the rock. After this, a high pressure mix of sand, massive amounts of water and a proprietary formula of chemicals are pumped into the rock formation to widen the fractures and release gas trapped in the rock.
_The health and environmental impact of this method of gas extraction is still unknown. Studies require funding, years to study/test, and in regard to health, a significant population on which to base a study. So while fracking has been going on in places like Colorado for nearly a decade any air quality research study data won't be available for another three years (in part because that study only began less than a year ago), and to date there have been no large studies with regard to the impact on health. In Pennsylvania though, this may soon be changing.
_In more rural areas like western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, gas operations are quickly becoming the major source of ground level ozone, a pollutant that often forms around gas wells. However, since fracking has been going on for only five years in this area, and local doctors and clinics have ten years of medical data, there is the unique ability to glean before and after statistics about visits to the hospital and asthma as it relates to local air quality (measured by the EPA).
_Ground level ozone comes from many sources but is the result of blending air pollution and heat. Those in urban areas know this haze well, as it is a major byproduct of vehicle emissions and industrial pollution.
_Though the funding for this asthma related study is still being drawn together, David Carey, associate chief researcher at the Geisinger Health System has long term goals. The immediate research will focus on asthma and respiratory issues, but the long term goal is to study the effects on incidences of diabetes and cancer.
_Though there is a history of over a decade of fracking in the U.S., there is yet to be any significant studies done about the effects of this on health, and in 2005 Congress voted to EXCLUDE fracking from falling under the jurisdiction of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Due to the current structure of laws regarding this method of extracting natural gas, residents who live near fracking wells still have no idea what chemicals are being put into the air or the full extent of what is being injected into the ground beneath their property. In states like Ohio alone, to date over 70 fracking wells have been drilled with more than 2000 expected to be sunk over the next three years.
_Having grown up on a family farm in the rural tri-state area (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia panhandle), I have my thoughts on fracking – both, the potential environmental and health consequences and the economic benefit for a region that is typified by burnt out coal towns and strip mining. What are yours?
_Author: Kevin Gilmore