Fracking's untold health threat: How toxic contamination is destroying lives

America's natural gas boom has real consequences for children and animals, researchers tell Salon

Published August 2, 2014 8:30PM (EDT)

Rachel Farnelli rides on her backyard swing that overlooks the Gesford #3 natural gas well in Dimock, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2009.       (Reuters/Tim Shaffer)
Rachel Farnelli rides on her backyard swing that overlooks the Gesford #3 natural gas well in Dimock, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2009. (Reuters/Tim Shaffer)

If we're going to talk about fracking, we can't just talk about energy independence, or the economy, or the potential for natural gas to act as a "bridge fuel" to help solve the global warming crisis. We also need to talk about the effect that hydraulic fracturing is having on the communities where it's taking place, and to ask whether that cost -- to people's health and property -- is too high.

The main barrier to that conversation, of course, is that it's one the industry definitely doesn't want to be having, aside from insisting that fracking is safe. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell, believe differently, and they have the research to back up their claims. The two have documented cases of contaminated water and air, of sick pets and dying livestock and of similar symptoms experienced by the animals' owners, all with few apparent explanations. And that, the researchers, argue, is the real scandal: It's up to the people being affected, and not the industry causing the damage, to prove that something's wrong.

In "The Real Cost of Fracking: How America's Shale Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets and Food," Bamberger and Oswald share the stories of people whose lives have been affected -- and in some cases, destroyed -- by fracking, in a way that aims to open up the conversation to what's at stake. "Simply put," they write, "we are not certain of the public health implications of large-scale industrial oil and gas drilling." The effects we are seeing, they add, are being seen most prominently in animals, children and oil and gas workers: the ones who, because they are so sensitive to hazards from gas operations, end up serving as the canaries in the coal mine.

Bamberger and Oswald spoke with Salon about the challenges of studying the health risks of fracking, and about why they believe the evidence they've found is enough to make us seriously question whether they're risks worth taking. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What got you started investigating this aspect of fracking?

MB: We heard about this issue about five years ago when we read in our local paper about a community group that was going through all the leases and just plotting out where surface and mineral rights were leased in the county. It made it really easy to know where you were and who your neighbors were that were leased -- the land that was leased around you. We're out in the country, about 15 minutes from Ithaca, and we saw that we were surrounded by farmers who owned 100 acres or more of land and had leased. The way compulsory integration works in New York is that if you are in a land unit, which is usually one square mile, that is 60 percent or more leased, then your land could be drilled under.

So that got us really interested in the issue, because we’re not leased, but we would be drilled under. So we thought, we'd better start paying attention to this. So we started attending meetings and learning more about it. And in the process, I started hearing about cases in Pennsylvania where animals were becoming ill, and no one was trying to figure out why, or owners didn’t know why, or their vets didn’t know why. That’s what pulled me into it; and for Robert's part, I think I can speak for him, he started getting involved with it from looking at the documentation I was starting to collect.

Was it hard to find people who were willing to speak about the experiences they’re having? 

MB: I started to get emails from people who knew I was a veterinarian who were local farmer-type people up here in New York who had connections with people in other states through the farming groups. So they started putting me in contact with people, and I started to become known as a vet who was interested in looking into these cases and starting to document them, and that’s how I got pulled into this.

What are some of the more shocking things you turned up?

MB: I can think of one particular occasion -- this was in Louisiana in April 2009 -- and that was the one where the cattle were exposed to hydraulic fracturing fluid and they died within an hour. What was shocking about that was that these are animals, which are over 1,000 pounds, and it takes something pretty powerful to knock them out, that they’re exposed to it and then dead in just an hour. That really grabbed me by the neck, because what I’ve been reading about was usually cattle exposures, where even if it’s pretty toxic, it’s one to three days. One to three days is pretty fast, actually, but within an hour is pretty amazing. So I think that was the most amazing thing that I heard of with these cases. Robert is shaking his head in agreement.

RO: I think that was the most dramatic case we had. We had a lot of cases that were interesting but that was a dramatic one.

MB: Robert, the other answer you give for this is the case where we were sitting at the kitchen…

RO: That wasn’t dramatic but it had a big effect on me, let’s put it that way. We went to visit some people and they had actually had some documented contamination on their land and their cows were quarantined. And we’re just sitting in their dining room, which is off their kitchen, and you can look through their kitchen window and all you can see out their kitchen window is a well pad. We look outside the dining room window and about 10 feet away from it is a driveway, and that’s the access road to the pad. So I realized for these people, all this drilling and fracking and everything, it was right on top of their house. These people had several hundred acres and they didn’t want them to put the pad there, but the company insisted on putting the pad right by their house. That was a thing that was really early on and it really struck me as something that I just didn’t understand -- how people could live with that, and how the companies could actually do that.

Would you say that all adds up to these people's lives being dominated, or ruined, by drilling operations? Or is it just that we're not hearing enough about any of these things that are happening?

MB: I think their lives are in many cases being dominated, and I think that’s true especially in the cases when people lose their water -- we all know what it’s like when our electricity goes out or our power goes out and we can’t run our spigot. To have that be all the time, how do you compensate for that? What do you with water that’s not good, and you can’t drink it and maybe you can’t even bathe in it? You’re getting rashes, you’re getting ill -- it really does turn your life upside down and it does dominate it. We have one woman we described in our book who said, “I go to sleep thinking of water. I wake up thinking of water. Every minute is thinking of water.” It just made me realize that we take so much for granted. But this is huge: When you have to think of every drop, counting exactly how much water you’re going to need and how much you’re going to use and think of your community and think of your neighbors, it’s really overwhelming. It’s hard to really understand. We got a little bit of a taste of it when we went and visited these people and spent some time with them, but I think no one could ever understand it unless you go through it.

RO: You know, Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, during the BP oil spill, he said he wanted his life back. That had such a hollow ring to it. These are people who really need their lives back, and they’re not going to get it back.

There’s one point in the book where you compare some of these people to victims of rape, which seems like a pretty extreme comparison.

MB: The thing I was trying to get at there as an analogy was lack of control. They’re powerless. And again, you can get that feeling through all the chapters that we’ve written in describing the cases. Especially in that last chapter, on environmental justice, where they’re at the complete mercy of these companies that are working around them and then at the companies’ mercy as to whether they’re provided with a water buffalo [a large container of replacement water], to whether it’s decided that the results of their testing show they need it. What do they have to prove in order to be able to have good water again? I think that’s the sort of thing I was trying to build and get there with that analogy: powerlessness and lack of control.

Going back to your research, how many of these case studies that you feature are backed up by conclusive evidence that says “Yes, fracking is definitely causing these problems?”

MB: So on those cases, a few are, most are not. We feel strongly that it’s because of the current testing methods that are used and the fact that for a lot of these chemicals, we don’t know what they are actually using -- especially the proprietary mixes, we don’t know what all the components are. But also we don’t know what the maximum contaminate levels (MCLs) are. So, in other words, what is the level below which there are no health effects and above which definitely there are? And what are the effective screening levels for air? If we don’t really know them, then we believe these people have no recourse because there’s no MCL. And that came out really strongly for me. We have several cases in the book that are part of the EPA study, where I was shocked when I saw the water results that a large majority of those chemicals the EPA was testing didn't have MCLs. And if you don’t have an MCL, you can’t go into litigation, you can’t go to court and say “we have conclusive evidence.” It doesn’t matter how sick they are and that they can’t use their water or that when they stop using their water they get better and when they use it again they get worse. None of that counts as conclusive evidence. Having said that, we do have several cases you can read about in the book where it is conclusive evidence. But it’s the rarity really because of the many reasons we discussed in the book.

RO: You should also sort of realize that it took about 30 years to determine conclusively that cigarettes caused cancer, and part of the reason is that there’s always some sort of plausible deniability. It really depends on what we accept as a level of truth and what’s more important. Is it more important to absolutely prove there’s contamination here, or is it more important to prove that there’s not contamination here? And where do we find the balance? The balance, unfortunately, is very much in favor of companies and not in favor of the people who are living with this.

So you mentioned more testing. Are there simple things that could be put in place to help make the link more clear, or to help protect people?

MB: That’s a really good question. We are now, getting back to the testing thing, thinking of looking at it in a different light, to make it simpler for people to know right away: “Is this water I shouldn’t be drinking? And if it needs much further testing that maybe I can’t afford, at least I shouldn’t be drinking it.”

As far as simple things that could be done that might lessen the effects right now, I think the best discussion of that is in our first paper, where we talk about what could be done: just getting further away from these operations, for the drilling companies to operate further away, there’s also been a lot, lately, about cement casing failures. I think the big thing is that we were shocked about the number of inspectors. There are so few inspectors that they cannot get out and really make sure things are running correctly, even as they stand now. So there’s something that’s really simple and really basic, and the state regulators would probably say we don’t have the money for that, we can’t afford it. But then it comes down to this question that we’re hearing all over the country now: “What’s more important, to get the energy out of the ground or people’s health?” That’s a real basic question; that’s what it comes down to now and we strongly believe people’s health and children and animals and food and all of that should come way before going after an energy source that’s not really viable, especially in light of the climate change we have -- but that’s another issue.

I can’t imagine that the industry has had a positive response to your work.

MB: Energy In Depth is one of the energy industry sites and they pretty much attack anybody who doesn’t say that this is great stuff they’re doing. So we are not the only ones who have been attacked. But we look at it like we don’t really care what they have to say. We’re just going to do the best science in the most objective way possible and that’s what we’re still trying to do. The reason to write the book, in addition to the articles, is to reach an audience that might not read an article, even though our article was pretty easy to read. A lot of people hearing it from a scientific journal just would not read it. So the book is an effort to reach those people who would read a book. So we’re hoping to get more people aware of the situation, and if more people are aware maybe things will change eventually.

Would you say nondisclosure agreements are making it harder to get those stories out there?  

MB: That is true and I think that’s happening more and more. And it’s been hard; we’ve had a few cases shut down and people say “I can’t provide you with any more information,” or right up front we were not able to follow up on a really good case because they'd already signed. So for us as researchers that really cuts out a lot of information where we’re trying to find out what’s happening, especially as health researchers for the public health -- it’s hard to protect the public health if you can’t ask what’s happening.

Leaving aside the climate change aspect, and just so far as the direct effects on people who live near fracking operations, do you see the point where the industry could make significant enough improvements that fracking will be safe -- or at least safe enough -- to be justifiable, from an energy standpoint?

RO: Well I think they can do better, that’s true. And maybe they are doing better. I don’t know. I don’t think there will ever be a case where it will always be safe. There will always be problems; mistakes happen. And when they wipe out a community’s water by making a mistake, that’s the major issue. When you get right down to it, what’s more important: Do we find alternative ways of getting energy? I think there are alternatives, but I think what we’re doing is sending all our money to subsidize the oil and gas industry and sending very little money subsidizing alternative energy. It’s that balance for change for alternative energy, which has become much more affordable for people. I think it would not be worth taking the risk of contaminating water and air and ruining some people’s lives.

By Lindsay Abrams

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