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An uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale

An uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale

Those words are not the fired-up, angry rhetoric of a fracking activist but rather the measured, data-based assessment of a Cornell University professor of molecular medicine who has long studied the effects of toxins on the central nervous system. During a presentation Friday morning in a wood-paneled, vaulted-ceilinged hall at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Robert E. Oswald Ph.D. mentioned the spread of fracking around the world and said everyone should be concerned. “Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale,” Dr. Oswald said. Exactly.

The scientific symposium was held during two days of fighting fracking in Philadelphia, including the Shale Gas Outrage protest on Thursday and an organizing conference Friday afternoon. The protest, outside the industry’s Shale Gas Insight conference at the Philadelphia Convention Center, ended in a march past the offices of PNC Financial Services Group, a major investor in fracking and mountaintop removal for coal, and the offices of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, one of the fracking industry’s biggest boosters.

Through the massive glass windows of the climate-controlled convention center, industry’s suited soldiers smirked and stared upon the fracking protesters below, who at one point raised middle fingers upward. Stephen Cleghorn, a Pennsylvania organic cheese farmer, who spread his wife’s ashes on his land in the spring and declared it sacred and off limits to drillers, urged protesters to shut down next year’s industry conference. “The people in this convention center are on the march to destroy my farm, and I’m not going to let it happen,” he said. Industry’s strategy is to contaminate, deny, litigate, settle and gag. “We should not let them plan the destruction of this Earth,” he said.

Gauging the extent of that destruction is the work of Dr. Oswald and Dr. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian in private practice in Ithaca, N.Y. At the symposium, they discussed their peer-reviewed research, published in January in Scientific Solutions, about farm animals, deer, fish and birds, cats and dogs and their owners near drilling sites in six states, with most cases in Pennsylvania. They said the study of animals provides clues to the effects on humans and is particularly valuable because animals’ breeding and exposure rates are higher. Using veterinary records, the scientists had a baseline that covered the five years before drilling as a basis for comparison. In one Louisiana case in the study, 17 previously healthy cattle died within an hour of exposure to fracking fluid, Dr. Bamberger said. In another case, cows were exposed when wastewater spilled in a pasture and then seeped into a pond. The following spring, the researchers documented stillbirths and failure to breed. Their study includes a catalog of stillbirths, failure to breed, drops in milk production, skin ailments, lameness, sudden death and other effects in animals. People reported headaches, burning eyes and intestinal, skin and other ailments.

Dr. Oswald said, “Decisions need to be based on science, and we don’t have good scientific data on health impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing.” So far, the burden of proving the practice dangerous has been on the public and medical community — the same scenario that played out over the years as the tobacco industry denied that nicotine was dangerous. In another comparison, he said that when patients died from taking the pain-reliever Vioxx, the manufacturer, Merck, could not simply go to the victims’ families, offer them compensation and then forbid them to talk. But that is what happens when the fracking industry uses payoffs and nondisclosure agreements to silence people who have been harmed, he said. “When issues of public health are at hand, this should not be something that is legal,” Dr. Oswald said.

In Pennsylvania, he said, spreading fracking wastewater on roads to melt ice is legal. In fact, it’s labeled a “beneficial use.” It can’t be used to suppress dust, although he showed a photo of the fluid being used for that purpose. “What’s not seen in the photo is how bad the smell is,” he said. “Or that a duck pond received the runoff.”

Also at the symposium were Dr. David J. Carey, associate chief research officer of the Weis Center for Research at the Geisinger Clinic, and Raina Rippel, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. Rippel is in the trenches, working with families affected by drilling in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh. Hers is not a scientific study, she said, because “there is no control group in southwest Pennsylvania.” Everyone is exposed. People harmed by drilling often feel they are not believed, she said. “It appears to be unbelievable. My message to you is: Believe it.”

She has compiled a list of health problems of 56 people so far, including skin rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting, breathing difficulties, eye and throat irritations, nosebleeds and anxiety. At times in tears, she said, “I’m a new mom, and it’s heartbreaking” to see children affected and families bewildered. “These people are suffering right now serious quality-of-life issues.” She said diesel fumes and stress are major problems. She said she also sees “heroic efforts on a daily basis to provide water to people who no longer have water. … An industry has come and taken away people’s water with no punitive enforcement.” She also faces a “wall of silence” created by nondisclosure policies. People don’t feel free to talk, she said. She mentioned several effects on farms. Some people avoid eating food grown on local farms because they fear the water is contaminated. On the other hand, farms are disappearing; with large checks from the gas leases, some people give up farming.

Dr. Carey said Geisinger has been collecting health information on patients in northeast Pennsylvania, in particular Bradford County, since the 1990s. So, last fall, the health system decided to start studying the health effects of drilling. The patients live in some of the poorest counties in the state and also in areas with the most intense drilling. “These are vulnerable communities,” he said. Geisinger is working with 20 organizations, including another regional health-care system. Most of the funding is from private foundations. The project uses GIS mapping technology to determine how close patients live to drilling and tracks asthma, perinatal outcomes (from 4,000 births per year in the area), trauma (such as from vehicle accidents), cardiovascular disease, cancer and community impacts. The goal is to have a searchable database and solid science that can be used eventually for policy, mitigation and prevention, he said.

Meanwhile, though, the fracking experiment on people, wildlife, land, air and water continues. But not without fierce resistance. Protesters at the Shale Gas Outrage event came from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and other states. The morning of the protest, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced that it would delay lifting a moratorium on fracking until the state conducts a study of the public health effects. In Maryland, where coalitions of environmentalists, farmers, public health professionals, faith groups and others are pressing for either a legislative moratorium or ban, the Daily Record reported the day of the protest that up to half the drillers are walking away from leases, some signed as early as 2006, in Garrett and Allegany counties. The article said that if Maryland allows fracking, industry expects “some of the toughest regulations and perhaps the highest severance tax in the country.”

Maryland’s efforts were not unnoticed at the rally. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said we as protesters need to expand our political power and force out politicians who do industry’s bidding. Gov. Martin O’Malley wants to be president, she said. “Is he going to be president if he allows fracking in Maryland?” she asked the crowd, to calls of “No!”

During the protest, Bill McKibben, founder of, said the most significant event this summer was that the “Arctic melted like it’s never melted before.” The long Arctic night has begun, he said, but with 75 percent less sea ice than 40 years ago. Although James Hansen called the melt “a planetary emergency,” the industry continues to search for more fossil fuels to burn, whether from the Arctic or tar sands or deep underground in shale rock. “At a certain point, we need to remember the first law of holes, which is: When you are in one, at the very least stop digging,” McKibben proclaimed.

The industry, as McKibben outlined in his August Rolling Stone article, already has in reserves five times more carbon than would be safe to burn, and even if the economy converted to natural gas, the global temperatures would still rise 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and carbon dioxide would reach 660 parts per million in the atmosphere. “That’s what these guys are planning for us, and we have to stop them,” McKibben said. He said churches and colleges should divest from fossil fuel companies, and we should resist fracking, even it means civil disobedience and going to jail.

Pointing to the industry executives in the convention center, Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said, “They are the extremists inside. … We are the sensible ones in the room.”

Several families harmed by fracking spoke, including Nancy Bevins of West Virginia, whose 23-year-old son died, crushed between a forklift and a building, when muddy ground shifted in central New York as he was setting up a drilling rig. The workers had asked for more mats to place on top of the mud but were told they were too costly. Her son was earning $13.25 an hour. Carol French said nine wells surround her organic farm in Bradford County. In March 2011, the water changed color. It contained sand and green moss and “gels like Jello if it sits for three hours.” To the industry folks, she said: “You do not have a right to choose who will be sacrificed.”

Josh Fox, the “Gasland” filmmaker, focused on the eventual failure of cement casings that surround the steel drills and isolate the fracking fluid from the aquifers. Five percent of these casings fail immediately, others fail over time. “If 5 percent of planes crashed, we wouldn’t have airports,” he said. “We are condemning Pennsylvania to a permanent condition of life support.”

Biologist, ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, said she carried with her “ferocious opposition to fracking” from her state – as well as a two small jars of silica sand from her childhood home in LaSalle County, Ill. Water is the delivery system, she said, but sand from Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota props open the fissures so the gas, benzene, radon, toluene can rise to the surface. That sand is readied for fracking in a facility a half-hour from her New York home. “Thus, the beloved landscape of my childhood home is being dismantled and carted off for storage in my children’s childhood home en route to destroy the bedrock and the landscape of Pennsylvania’s children,” she said.  And silica dust causes lung cancer. Steingraber, who was diagnosed at age 20 with bladder cancer, said she is part of a cancer cluster of those who drank the carcinogen-laced tap water in her Illinois town. “It is my job to make sure that my two children don’t become cancer data points in their hometown,” she said.

Governor Corbett, according to local newspaper and radio reports, said, “Our opponents agree that we can land a rover on Mars, but they can’t bring themselves to think we can safely drill a mile into our own soil.” At the rally, in fact, one speaker mentioned landing a rover on Mars—noting that if we could accomplish that, we should be able to figure out how to power the economy on wind, solar and other renewable energy. And as my generous hostess in Swarthmore noted, if NASA were doing the fracking, perhaps we would be less concerned.

–elisabeth hoffman

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