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Guest Column

August 24, 2010

Local column: Little said about health effects of drilling

Although opponents of the "hydrofracking" method of drilling for natural gas have raised many concerns about potential for contamination of water and air, little has been written about what this would mean for human health.

Although it is to be hoped that "fracking fluid" would never enter ground water, there are already many examples of communities where this has happened.

What is in "fracking fluid," and why should we be afraid of it? This is not fully known, as the manufacturers have a "proprietary" right to non-disclosure. However, researchers have been able to recognize many of the chemicals used by analysis of spills and from the logs of hazardous materials required for interstate transport. (This information is available at

In the limited reports of the fracking fluid used in Pennsylvania, analysts have found at least 63 different compounds: Of these, about three-quarters have one or more toxic effects.

The residents of Dimock, Pa., whose wells have been contaminated, have complained of gastrointestinal, respiratory and neurological symptoms. These organ systems serve as an early-warning system, or "canary in the mine" for many toxins.

Many of chemicals listed are known neurotoxins. A neurotoxin poisons the activity of the brain and nervous system. Symptoms may vary widely from headache to confusion to numbness, tingling or pain in the extremities. These symptoms are non-specific and it is difficult for physician's to recognize a cause in many cases. These types of toxicity are likely to result in permanent and debilitating damage.

Most of the chemicals listed are irritants upon direct contact. Depending upon the intensity of exposure, that irritation to skin would range from a severe burn to a minor rash. In the eye and airway and gastrointestinal tract a similar spectrum of complaints could be noted. Most of these complaints (from an irritant) would likely be reversible if the exposure ceased, although some would not be. Some of the agents are "sensitizers". A sensitizer makes a person more susceptible to an allergic stimulus and could lead to chronic and irreversible conditions.

Roughly a third of the chemicals are known to cause cancer, affect reproductive health, cause birth defects, or are endocrine/hormone disruptors. These toxicities commonly have a long interval between exposure and disease (a latency period), and to date there is no known level of safe exposure. Additionally, exposures may have different effects at different stages of life (including intrauterine development), and may, through genetic alteration, be passed down to future generations. Although marginally treatable, these health issues are almost always irreversible. It might be many years before the families and their future generations in Dimock begin to experience these problems.

The industrial processes around hydrofracking also release heavy metals and noxious gases such as volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and ozone. These are most likely to injure the respiratory and neurological systems, again presenting with a wide array of symptoms.

In tracking the cause of a health problem related to an environmental exposure, there is rarely a "smoking gun", such as the oil soaked dead pelicans washing ashore in the Gulf of Mexico. There are many reasons why it is difficult to identify a cause and effect relationship between an environmental exposure and a health problem. First, unless the exposure is massive or acute, many environmentally provoked health problems occur after long and highly variable intervals, obscuring the cause. This is true of most carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Secondly, some individuals will have more problems than others, depending on their underlying health problems. Thirdly, complaints are often non-specific. This means that the symptoms may be very common even in healthy individuals, for example headaches. In the case of chronic very low dose exposures, the cumulative damage over long periods may be entirely different from the symptom complex seen with an acute or massive exposure. In fact, the great majority of industrial and environmental toxins have never been tested for chronic, low dose exposures, and traditional toxicology literature is almost entirely based on animal models, except where inadvertent human exposure has occurred.

Given the overall lack of information available for these agents, the potential for widespread and multi-faceted exposures and our inability to monitor and track health risks, it is safe to say that the medical community is not prepared to effectively detect or manage the short or long term effects of contamination from the chemicals used in and generated by the hydrofracking process. Since we cannot be certain that such contamination will not occur, we should oppose this technology. We cannot allow our addiction to fossil fuels to blind us to the unpleasant truths about the potential dangers of hydrofracking.

Amy FreetH, M.D., Specializes in diabetes, metabolism, endocrinology and internal medicine. Antoinette Kuzminski, M.D., specializes in internal medicine. Both work with the Bassett Healthcare Network based in Cooperstown.

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