If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.
Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.
So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?
The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don't work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn't mean it's okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health.
The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide.
"It's clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk," said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. "We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe."
Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations—primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven't been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week's UN climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them.
Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it's still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth.