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Explaining Fracking’s Potential Health Impacts

On Tuesday, February 19, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice hosted a webinar by Dr. Jerome A. Paulson on the potential health impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Dr. Paulson is a Professor of Pediatrics and of Occupational & Environmental Health at George Washington University, Medical Director for National & Global Affairs at the Child Health Advocacy Institute, and Director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health & the Environment.

The webinar is a must see for anyone following the debate around fracking. Dr. Paulson highlighted health risks linked to fracking operations, specifically focusing on health impacts to children. Exposure to airborne benzene, which is emitted during natural gas production, has been associated with childhood leukemia and prenatal birth defects, such as spinal and nervous system damage. Flaring, the practice of burning off uncollected natural gas, causes the formation of and resulting airborne exposure to ozone and particulate matter, which can increase risk of respiratory infections, aggravate respiratory diseases such as asthma, and lead to premature aging of the lungs. In addition, Dr. Paulson debunked the oft-touted response to reports of methane contamination of drinking water supplies: that ingesting water containing methane is not hazardous to human health. Although this industry claim is not necessarily true since little is known about the long-term effects of methane ingestion, Dr. Paulson noted that the presence of methane is a marker for the potential migration into water supplies of other hazardous materials stirred up by fracking. Water supplies that test positive for methane most likely also contain levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials and heavy metals, which are known carcinogens, embedded in shale rock and mobilized during the fracking process. In this case, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Dr. Paulson also emphasized the lack of comprehensive information available on the potential health effects of fracking, even though known hazardous toxins are used and produced in the fracking process. He called on the industry to prove that fracking can be done without threatening human health and the environment, and made clear that industry, not the taxpaying public, should be required to establish an independent foundation to fund research in this area. It was this dearth of information that led Commissioners Dr. Nirav Shah of the New York State Department of Health and Joseph Martens of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to announce last week that they will postpone any decision on fracking in New York pending further review of its potential health impacts.

Ultimately, Dr. Paulson’s presentation fully supported what hundreds of health experts, public officials, and environmental groups like Riverkeeper have been calling for all along: not one well until the science and facts on the health impacts of fracking are known.

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