Researcher warns of fracking dangers

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The economic boons of fracking are offset by uncalculated costs of ill effects on residents’ health and strains on rural health systems, a University of Rochester Medical Center researcher asserts in a recently published paper calling for tighter regulation of the controversial practice.

Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a process used to extract gas or oil from deposits trapped in shale. The method involves drilling into the rock and injecting high-pressure streams of chemical-laden water to break up the shale and free the fossil fuels.

Proponents see fracking as bringing prosperity and posing few dangers. Opponents warn of environmental damage and consequent hard-to-reverse ill effects on health.    

Published in the Aug. 20 issue of the journal Science, a perspective piece by URMC public health economist Elaine Hill and University of Kentucky economist Lala Ma points to research showing increased concentrations of four chemicals used in fracking in water supplies in areas where drillers have used fracking.

Hill sees pollution linked to fracking as a factor in increased incidence of heart disease, reproductive health problems, and even mental health and addiction issues. 

While fracking proponents tout benefits like an estimated average 4.9 percent boost to household income and greater U.S. independence from foreign energy supplies, Hill warns that negative impact on “individual future health, education, and labor market outcomes” offset fracking’s benefits.

In a move decried by some as putting an economic damper on Upstate New York areas like the Southern Tier, which sits on top of fossil-fuel-rich shale, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in 2015 banning fracking statewide. The Legislature codified the ban as a matter of state law beginning this year with a measure passed as part of the state’s 2021-22 budget.

Several years ago, Hill set up a lab to compare health effects on New York residents and residents in neighboring Pennsylvania, where fracking is allowed and has been extensively deployed. 

In a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in July, she and several co-authors found higher incidences of low-birthweight babies near fracking sites in Texas. Hill also authored a 2017 American Economic Review study that was the first to link shale gas extraction to groundwater pollution. 

Citing a need for trade secret protection and touting immediate economic benefits, drillers using fracking have so far resisted calls to say what chemicals they use while extraction industry advocates warn of dire consequences if fracking regulations are tightened.

A 2020 American Petroleum Institute-financed study, for example, warns of the loss of 7.5 million jobs; a cumulative $3.1 trillion rise in the U.S. trade deficit through 2030; and a $618 annual increase in the average U.S. household’s energy costs if fracking were to be completely eliminated.

If closer attention to fracking’s downsides and long-term ill effects on health are not taken into account to more carefully regulate the industry, the results could be as disastrous or more so, Hill counters.   

“Understanding the exposure pathways at play is necessary for policy to effectively control the environmental damages from these operations,” she argues. “Tightening the stringency of currently regulated chemicals should be considered.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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