Shale gas drilling and public health: From CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. First publication of full text email.

Below is the full text of last week’s email from Dr. Christopher Portier, head of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).  I believe it’s the first publication of the full text, which I obtained through the CDC press office.  The  story was covered on 1/5/12 by Kevin Begos of the AP quoting excerpts of the email.

As dry as the document is, in several ways it represents a major change in mainstream scientific thinking about public health risks of gas drilling.

  1. Dr. Portier essentially states that he cannot say that hydrofracking is safe.  This is said in a veiled way, by stating that he cannot confirm that it poses a risk to public health, but that he has “data of concern”.  If you think about it for a moment, saying he cannot confirm that drilling is unsafe is he same as saying he cannot confirm that it’s safe. (Two mutually exclusive options—safe/unsafe. Uncertainty about whether one option being true is really uncertainty about whether either option is true.)  So in stating that he cannot confirm that drilling is unsafe he is also stating that he cannot confirm that fracking does not poses a risk to public health–but that he had data of concern.  It’s just a shade less in-your-face in our current regulatory world, where it’s hard for someone whose job is protecting public health to state outright, yet,  that the gas industry poses a risk to public health. Given the ATSDR reputation for not making waves, this statement is pretty bold.
  2. Dr. Portier makes it clear that he has evidence (“data of concern”) that makes him worried.  If anyone has worrysome data it’s him. The ATSDR has been in the trenches with the EPA in Pavillion, Wyoming where they have documented drinking water aquifer contamination from hydrofracking, including with benzene.
  3. This is the first statement by a federal health official raising concern about risks to the food supply from hydrofracking. Dr. Portier recommends that

 ”-Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals. ……… livestock on farmed lands consuming potentially impacted surface waters; and recreational fish from potentially impacted surface waters.

Some of the wells in Pavillion were used for livestock. This was groundwater.  But the recognition of surface water risks to livestock and the food chain is meaningful new statement by a federal health official. Surface spills are frequent, substantial, and mostly unreported, and go downhill to contaminate steams and ponds used by livestock.  And given the livestock deaths in Louisiana and PA and elsewhere, proven to be caused by ingestion of frack chemicals, other strongly associated, it makes sense to be concerned about toxic residue in animal based foods.

The below email tells us that the scientific ground on which regulators must stand has shifted.  No longer can we ask opponents of fracking “prove that it’s not safe”. Given our current knowledge we now must say to the proponents, that before fracking “we need to do real research to find out if it is safe”.  That research does not yet exist.

In New York, this means that the SGEIS should go into a drawer, or the trash, until the research on health impacts recommended by Dr. Portier is completed.

 

Email 1/6/12 from  Health Communications Specialist, NCEH/ATSDR

Here’s the statement from Dr. Christopher Portier, ATSDR Director. Hope it is helpful.

We do not have enough information to say with certainty whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health. Although national data are limited on impacts to health, site-by-site work is turning up data of concern. One area of concern is that hydraulic fracturing fluids contain potentially hazardous chemical classes (petroleum distillates, volatile organic compounds, glycol ethers, etc.) and the recovered fluids may also contain radionuclides and salts.

More research is needed for us to understand public health impacts from natural gas drilling and new gas drilling technologies. Some research recommendations include:

-We recommend that chemicals related to or mobilized by natural gas activities be monitored. These chemicals may be different in different parts of the country or different geological formations.

-Pre- and post- testing of private drinking water wells is needed along with testing during the entire lifecycle of natural gas activities at each site.

-Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals. In addition to groundwater, exposure pathways could include the air at well sites, impoundment sites, and compressor stations both locally and regionally; livestock on farmed lands consuming potentially impacted surface waters; and recreational fish from potentially impacted surface waters.

One research challenge in looking at health effects is that we do not have a standard case definition for individuals exposed to natural gas activities. This poses an extremely complex problem for epidemiology researchers, given the range of possible environmental exposures that are currently not well defined and that may be intermittent and variable across the lifecycle of natural gas activities at any one location and in different parts of the country.

Our priority as an agency is protecting people from chemical exposures. In addition to our work at sites around the country, ATSDR is working with federal partners to advance our knowledge on potential health effects of natural gas drilling. At this point, we don’t know what we will find. We want to make sure that we understand any health risks that may be present. We are consulting on EPA’s National Hydraulic Fracturing Study. We are looking for opportunities to bring scientists together to set a research agenda to address health concerns from natural gas drilling.

 

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9 Responses to Shale gas drilling and public health: From CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. First publication of full text email.

  1. Amy Peters says:

    I hope Dr. Portier doesn’t get sacked. He should be
    In 2009, the President’s Panel on Cancer Report gave concrete recommendations for reducing cancer rates: REDUCE exposure to environmental toxins that cause cancer!
    This report was released without fanfare, with little reporting. It should have been shouted from the rooftops.

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  3. Celia Janosik says:

    Pre-testing-post testing of water wells and testing the length of gas activities at the site.
    Opponents of fracking should not have to prove it is unsafe. Proponents need to prove it is safe before fracking. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
    Dairies, truck farms are allowing frack activity. No No No.

  4. Celia Janosik says:

    Pre-testing-post testing of water wells and testing the length of gas activities at the site.
    Opponents of fracking should not have to prove it is unsafe. Proponents need to prove it is safe before fracking. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

  5. Kate says:

    Does no one find this a bit disingenuous? In the first line Dr. Portier says that: “We do not have enough information to say with certainty whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health.” So, why raise an alarm? Shale gas drilling has been going on for over sixty years. They certainly had time to study it.

    He says, “Our priority as an agency is protecting people from chemical exposures.” Ha, ha, ha! Given the level of chemical exposure we all experience in our day to day lives, this statement is just plain silly. (Have you ever looked at the chemical cocktails in the vaccinations the CDC recommends?)

    Are you aware that the CDC stopped aggressive measurement of Fukishima fallout within weeks of the accident, even though this fallout looks to be responsible for 14,000 deaths following the incident, and will continue to be a health hazard for generations? The initial deaths were from airborn fallout, no doubt, but the levels that entered the food chain, with half lives of 25,000 years, well they will be silently killing us for a long time.

    Perhaps if the CDC stuck to science, rather than politics, they would be better guardians of the public health, but when they start off by saying there are no known hazards, and then proceed to say the sky is falling…while ignoring the existent hazards…well, they show themselves for the political lackeys that they are. This statement of Dr. Portier confirms to me that the CDC is pathetically useless for anything but grandstanding and posturing in a feeble attempt to maintain credibility as a bloated non-scientific bureaucracy.

    Bottom line…if you use fuel to heat your home, or drive your car, and you are against gas drilling, what are you thinking? More nuclear? More Middle East wars? More coal…?

    • Ken Jaffe says:

      Kate,

      Thanks for your comment. I’d like to respond to a couple of your points.

      In fact the type of gas drilling under discussion has been going on for less than 10 years. Horizontal hydrofracking uses millions of gallons of water with toxins for each frack job, tens of millions at each drill pad. The older vertical hydrofracking involves tens of thousands of water. It’s a little like comparing a biplane to a 747.

      In fact there has been no systematic study by federal or state governments of health risks or impacts. If you are aware of any, please share. The policy until very recently has been “don’t ask, don’t tell”. The gas industry has been claiming that there is absolutely no risk to humans. We now know that this is not true. But unfortunately the legal framework around gas drilling is based on a false belief it this safety.

      Surely you are not suggesting that because one drives a car, they should be content to have toxic levels of benzene in their drinking water? It was benzene that in drinking water wells that motivated the EPA to file an Emergency Order in Texas against Ranger Resouces. And it was benzene at 50 time acceptable levels for human health that was a major factor in the CDC and EPA’s recent report linking hydrofracking to aquifer contamination in Wyoming.

      And, as you know, the CDC has no jurisdiction over what goes on in Japan.

      Dr. Portier’s statement is so measured that I’m not sure how you can characterize it as alarmist. The politics of the regulatory situation is currently stacked in favor of the gas industry, rather than human health. This includes the exemption of hydrofracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. Suggestions from the CDC that high levels of carcingens in drinking water are a reason for research can hardly characterized as “the sky is falling”. It’s really common sense.

      Ken

    • Kelly Bartell says:

      For information on how we can transition our entire country from a fossil-fuel addicted leach upon the natural world to a more prosperous and sustainable one, I highly recommend you check out the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Avory Lovin’s new book “Reinventing Fire”. They have outlined a pragmatic plan, through redesigning for efficiency and increasing implementation and improvement of an array of renewables, to “end our addiction to fossil fuels, create the core industries of the new energy era, generate $5 trillion in new economic value, grow our economy by 158%, and enhance resilience and security”, all by 2050. And it is all market driven and does not require an act of congress to accomplish. While part of their plan does include natural gas, it does not call for increasing production an iota from its current level, and it can be phased out from there. This is a vision worth familiarizing ourselves with. Their website is http://www.rmi.org/ReinventingFire. We can do better than fracking, our children, and the Earth, are depending on it!

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  7. Kate says:

    Ken, here are a couple of sites with documents pertaining to gas drilling that I found enlightening. There is the DEC environmental impact survey:
    http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/75370.html

    Also, on the Energy in Depth library there are some excellent pertinent articles, especially the research by MIT.
    http://www.energyindepth.org/library/

    From all that I have read and understand, the possibility of my water being contaminated from a gas well is quite remote. On the other hand, there are many, many toxins in our environment that the EPA has no problem with. Given the benefits of gas production, especially in light of MIT’s study, I think we would be more prudent to worry about the GMO’s that our Secretary of Agriculture (Ex-Monsanto employee) is unleashing on our environment and the untold cataclysmic effects this could have on our crops and food, the fallout from Fukishimi that is being ignored, or the estrogen that you are drinking that is flushed down toilets from birth control users and ends up in the drinking water, along with the other pharmaceuticals that the drug companies peddle and Americans are eating like candy. If you want a mission, choose one of them…or fight for life and raise some awareness about the child that is aborted every 23 seconds in our country.

    I find the alarm over natural gas production way out of proportion to the possible harmful effects, and actually, yes, I do believe that people that are so dead set against it, should consider weaning themselves from the “grid” and living in accordance with their beliefs. I would. I know Amish people that have gas leases, and are perplexed about all the fuss, and they don’t even use fossil fuels! If I were against mining a plentiful source of clean fossil fuels that would make our country more energy independent, and save the lives of soldiers that are fighting in the Middle East for oil, I would do my part to reduce reliance and stop using them. I believe it is hypocritical to do otherwise. In my opinion, the only folks that can consistently argue against gas drilling, in light of all the collective facts of the benefits versus the risks, are the Amish, and as I said, we know of some that have leases, so go figure. ;0)

    Happy reading!

    Kate

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