Fracking: Abundant Energy, But at What Cost?

A drilling rig is near a barn and bales of hay Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 in Springville, Pa. State regulators blame faulty gas we
A drilling rig is near a barn and bales of hay Friday, Oct. 14, 2011 in Springville, Pa. State regulators blame faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp for leaking methane into the groundwater in nearby Dimock, Pa. It was the first serious case of methane migration related to the Pennsylvania 3-year-old drilling boom, raising fears of potential environmental harm throughout the giant Marcellus Shale gas field. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The boom in natural gas production across the United States takes advantage of a process called hydraulic fracturing. "Fracking" now accounts for more than 30 percent of the supply of natural gas and has created jobs in economically distressed parts of the United States. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, especially coal, producing much lower levels of harmful pollutants as well as carbon dioxide emissions causing global warming.

But along with the promise of economic benefits and a healthier planet comes the worry that the exponential growth in the industry is spawning troubling health risks in communities near fracking operations. These hazards include toxic chemicals in the water, polluted air, and even seismic activity caused by disposal of fracking waste waters.

About 2 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas lies trapped beneath the surface of the United States in shale beds and other kinds of rock. Energy companies drill deep into the earth and then sideways. To create fracking wells they inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the rock bed in a process that frees the natural gas. After fracking, the wells stay in place to collect the gas.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported finding potentially dangerous substances linked to fracking in wells located in Wyoming. Since then, government agencies have been overwhelmed by calls for studies from communities and some of these have identified pollutants in drinking water wells and in the air. In addition, some of the chemicals -- not just those added as part of the fracking process but also chemicals brought to the surface in the waste water -- are linked to health problems such as disruption of the endocrine system
or even cancer.

As a pediatrician and an environmental health expert, I worry about people living near the drill sites, including young people. Children are more exposed to pollutants simply because they inhale or ingest more per body weight and often are less capable of detoxifying dangerous substances as efficiently as adults. They may be more susceptible because toxic exposures at critical periods of development can have life-long health consequences.

Researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have launched a large-scale study that will help shed light on fracking-related pollution of drinking or groundwater in communities across the country. Public health scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies are racing to investigate the reports of health problems in communities that have asked for assessments.

We need an approach to fracking that recognizes not only the overall societal benefits but also the potential for public health threats in communities.

What's the solution? Can we have our cake and eat it too?

First, the United States must start aggressively investing in public health research to systematically identify the unintended health consequences related to fracking and look for ways to prevent those risks.

Second, more disclosure is needed. The public has a right to know about potentially hazardous substances that are being used, handled or released in and around the natural gas drilling sites. We also need to know about methane (a potent greenhouse gas) emissions from natural
gas production and use.

Third, government at all levels needs to cooperate on efforts to produce gas safely, to protect water supplies, assure responsible waste management and control air emissions including methane.

Last, but not least, policymakers must find ways to involve local communities in decisions about fracking in populated areas. Some have called for bans on all fracking operations. Instead, I believe that we need management processes that address local conditions and local needs, and respect the right of local communities to regulate the location of gas development through local zoning ordinances.

Unless we take these steps, we run the risk that more communities will experience negative consequences from fracking, exposing children and others to potentially dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water: That is a risk that we simply cannot tolerate.