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What is Fracking and Why Should I Care?

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June 1, 2012

Natural Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

Natural gas has been used as a source of light and heat for more than 100 years. Historically natural gas been touted as one of the best eco-friendly fuels for wide-scale use. Relatively this may be true, however we are also beginning to see a darker side to the future of the industry.

Natural gas is considered the cleanest fossil fuel but because it is a fossil fuel it is also a finite resource. The natural gas industry developed new drilling techniques, called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to reach what was previously inaccessible, including the largest known reserve of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale.

Fracking is simply a means of natural gas extraction from shale. Literally tons of proprietary chemicals, some toxic, are mixed with massive amounts of water and sand and pumped deep underground (up to 8,000 feet). The enormous pressure fractures the shale and allows the gas to flow more freely.

Fracking Chemicals’ Impact on Health and Environment

One major issue with fracking is the lack of transparency of chemicals used, and in what quantity. There has been some movement toward public awareness of the specific chemicals which are pumped into the ground, but it is certainly not definitive. The so-called Halliburton loophole exempts corporations from disclosing the chemicals in the fracking fluid and from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and even the Superfund law.

What is known is that many of the chemicals – used in every stage of drilling and extraction of natural gas – are known to be seriously toxic to humans and animals. A few of these include hydrochloric acid, benzene, formaldehyde, methanol, and mercury, all of which have serious consequences for human health and wildlife.

With the inherent likelihood of spills, leaks, accidents, and even equipment failure, the impact these toxic chemicals could have on the environment around us is enormous. Some areas of the country have already experienced some of the following (and more):

  • Human Health Cost. The most egregious documented health effects include neurological problems, respiratory illness, birth defects, and cancer. Other documented symptoms can include bloody noses, asthma, diarrhea, dizziness, migraines, nerve pain, and skin rashes. More than 75% of the chemicals used affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. About 40-50% affect the nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% affect the endocrine (hormones) system; and 25% can cause cancer.
  • Earthquakes. These man-made earthquakes are becoming more and more frequent and the root cause is “almost certainly” fracking and the disposal of wastewater. The earthquakes have not caused much damage yet, but with a call for more drilling anything is possible, especially as seismologists are learning more about faults no one knew existed.
  • Contaminated Water. Naturally occurring fissures can allow for fracking chemicals to seep into the groundwater. Residents near fracking wells have complained about the quality of their water, some of which are even able to light their tap water on fire due to the large amounts of methane. Recent study has begun to prove to be true what these people have known all along: the groundwater is being contaminated.
  • Air Pollution. Tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) escape and mix with sunlight and the emissions from equipment to create ground-level ozone. Most notably, this wreaks havoc on lungs causing irreversible damage.

Beyond all of this, potentially the most frustrating thing is the continued lack of research on the short- and long-term effects and the loopholes in place to prevent existing public health policy from applying to fracking. It would behoove our country to take a long pause to conduct a little more research, for the health of our families and environment.

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