How Fracking Is Bad for Our Bodies

With the spread of hydraulic fracturing come untoward social and somatic health effects.
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(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Almost a year after the state health commissioner began an investigation into the safety of fracking, its future in New York remains unclear. Last month, public opposition hit a new high. But fracking proponents dangle job growth and economic gains next to unemployment numbers and anemic local revenues. On the other side, opponents point to pipeline explosions, stray gas contamination, potential spills, and improper disposal of waste.

But there’s a less obvious risk. Fracking doesn't only impact health when mistakes are made. It also impacts health when everything goes right, the population explodes, and a town is drastically changed.

We've known about the boomtown health effect since the coal mining boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s the idea: When mostly male newcomers flood a small town, they overwhelm community services. After all, the new population isn't met with more doctors, police officers, or teachers. Housing lags behind demand. This jacks up property taxes and rent, which hit people on a fixed income the hardest. The housing inflation also has a tendency to push out teachers, which rattles stable schools and makes boom work more attractive to struggling students than a diploma. There’s often a spike in crime rates, dropouts, alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health problems.

In 1974, psychologist ElDean Kohrs called this phenomenon “Gillette Syndrome,” after the Wyoming boomtown. Kohrs compared the rates of divorce, crime, and high school dropouts with two other Wyoming communities. Gillette’s rates were far higher. There was more. The suicide attempt rate rose to 1 in 250. (“Suicide attempts … became the tool to regulate the lack of human concern,” Kohrs wrote.) One out of eight had a problem with alcohol. Many found it difficult to find a family physician. They resorted to previously unheard of three-hour waits in the emergency room. Overworked ERs gained a reputation as “first-aid stations,” as they transported patients to better staffed hospitals.

“These boomtowns are communities that are undergoing as much rapid change as you can think of, short of a catastrophe,” said Jeffrey Jacquet, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at the South Dakota State University. Jacquet has studied the boomtown model in Sublette County, Wyoming, and the Marcellus Shale development, which is found in the Northern Appalachia region of the United States.

According to Jacquet, booms cause a social-psychological disruption. This is especially true for older, long-term residents. One way to think about this disruption is through what sociologists call “density of acquaintanceship.” This measures the degree to which people in a community know each other. Here’s one example. If you go to the grocery store or a restaurant, how many people will you recognize? If you live in a small town, that number, or density, might be pretty high. If that density suddenly plummets, because of waves of new people, this can be jarring. Where a person lives shapes who a person is. But the rapid growth of a boom changes what type of place a town is, a person’s role in it, and their social circle.

This gives us a broad sense of the boomtown health effect. But what are the health outcomes at the individual level?

A recent paper by University of Pittsburgh researchers brings the camera in close to show how the fracking boom impacts health. Kyle Ferrar and colleagues interviewed community members who live near the Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania. They spoke with these community members three times. This is because they wanted to know if their symptoms got worse (spoiler: They did). In this study, they did not trace back the steps in the exposure pathway to figure out what caused people’s symptoms. They simply wanted to sketch out the self-reported health of this boomtown.

The results are alarming. Community members reported 59 health impacts and 13 stressors from the Marcellus Shale development. They complained of rashes and sores, headaches and changes in vision, diarrhea and nausea, shortness of breath, and loss of sleep.

Their in-depth interviews produced vivid accounts of life in a boomtown. “They came in and set up flare stacks and were flaring wells consistently for at least a two week period, of which we slept none probably for those two weeks,” one man told the researchers, “Because of both the noise and the light, it was like living inside a football stadium.”

Another man worried about his dying animals. His cattle had been drinking the water in the field. He suspected the water was contaminated, even though the drilling company denied it. He told the researchers that he lost 10 calves and others were born blind or with cleft palates.

But the most common symptom was stress. These stressors included ‘concerns/complaints ignored’ and having been ‘denied (information) or provided with false information.’ The most frequently reported stressor, however, was a ‘concern for health.’ This raises an important point. “If you’re living across the street from a gas field,” Jacquet said, “there may be stress from perceiving environmental contamination, whether it’s happening or not.”

There are cancer and non-cancer risks from exposure to fracking-related chemicals. But there is also a health risk from merely the fear of exposure.

This isn't only a concern in the Marcellus Shale development. I spoke with Scott Skokos, the Senior Field Organizer with the Dakota Resource Council. Like the Ferrar team found, people in the North Dakota boom are also scared for their health, especially those who live near wells or whose cars are covered in dust. Many also don’t have fond memories of previous booms. Now, fracking has expanded the boom into their backyards. “The thing is there are people who were here for the first booms of the 80s,” Skokos said. “They have pictures of cattle that were poisoned by H2S gas.”

“We have a stance that we don’t know if this is bad or not,” Skokos continued, “but if we have radioactive stuff coming out, this can’t be good.”

Like the New York State approach, some people want to figure out the health impact before the drilling starts. Recently, this happened when the Battlement Mesa community in Western Colorado demanded a health assessment before the natural gas operator received a permit. The county contracted this work to researchers at Roxana Witter and researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health.

Witter and colleagues describe their health impact assessment in a recent American Journal of Public Health paper. They provided more than 90 recommendations to help prevent health impacts from air and water contamination, industrial noise and traffic, and social changes.

Their health impact assessment should serve as a model for other communities. They held more than a dozen stakeholder meetings, which invited citizen groups, rights owners, the natural gas operator, industry leaders, and health department officials. They conducted a baseline assessment of the community and its surroundings. What they found was disturbing, but not surprising. Residents in the adjacent development, for example, had many of the same symptoms as residents near the Marcellus Shale development: headaches, nausea, and upper respiratory distress. They also reported rapidly increasing rates of crime and sexually transmitted infections.

Witter’s group divided their recommendations into three main areas: reduce potential for chemical exposures, reduce exposure to industrial operations, and support residential character of the community. Ultimately, the natural gas operator did not apply for a permit to begin development in the Battlement Mesa community. But this assessment serves as an important model for communities that wrestle with permitting natural gas development.

As the New York State health commissioner weighs the evidence on fracking, he should add onto his balance the social dimension of the boomtown health effect. “Part of the issue is that there is a huge variety of chemicals that can be emitted into the environment through a variety of pathways, meaning that people could ingest, inhale, or get chemicals on their skin,” said Witter. “But we also need to consider other aspects of health. There’s a lot more than just fracking chemicals getting into the ground water.”

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Jason Silverstein is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Harvard, where he also works with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

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