Natural gas has recently been touted as a clean fuel and viable alternative to oil, however the process of extracting it may pose hidden health hazards.
Natural gas is just like any other fossil fuel – a non-renewable source of energy. The methane that is released during the extraction process is a powerful greenhouse gas¹ and the chemicals the industry uses in the process may irreversibly contaminate our sources of drinking water.
The drilling of natural gas has experienced an upsurge in the U.S., which coincided with an exemption issued for a process used to extract natural gas from underground shale, known as “hydraulic fracturing.”
Hydraulic fracturing pumps large volumes of water through an underground drill pipe, along with sand and a number of undisclosed proprietary solvents and chemicals, in order to release the natural gas trapped in the shale.
The process is claimed to be safe by the industry and reported to pose no risk to underground aquifers or drinking water by an Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) study (2004). However, evidence has been mounting that hydraulic fracturing and its attendant activities of waste removal may pose a significant threat to clean drinking water sources, the environment and human health.
Water is the source of life. Without it, we cannot live. This precious resource deserves the strictest protection. Studies have shown that water contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) is associated with a higher incidence of Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.²
Near Pittsburgh, mercury released into the atmosphere from coal-fired steel plants can enter the water supply by raining back down to the ground, which in turn can lead to mercury contamination in vegetables grown in the region and fish that live in streams and rivers.
90 percent of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are on the national toxic chemicals list; some are known endocrine disruptors, which upset the body’s hormone balance.³ These chemicals are also known to cause respiratory problems and in about 20 to 30 percent of cases, cancer.
According to The Endocrine Society, a research organization devoted to the clinical practice of endocrinology, the best way to avoid these disorders is to prevent them. They state in a comprehensive review, “In the absence of direct information regarding cause and effect, the precautionary principle is critical to enhancing reproductive and endocrine health.”4
Some of these endocrine disruptors can actually be more potent at lower concentrations, as seen in the Chesapeake Bay where exposure to minute amounts of the pesticide Atrazine resulted in hermaphrodite frogs. In the case of hydraulic fracturing, the precautionary principle would dictate that this technology should not be used until its potential effects on the sources of our drinking water are clarified.
Due to growing concern over potential health hazards of hydraulic fracturing, the EPA is launching a national lifecycle study to investigate nuances that may have been missed in the first study, such as chemical spills due to improper storage and transport of contaminated water.5
The rush to natural gas has spread from sparsely populated regions in the Southwest, such as Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico to the Northeast. The industry is interested in exploring the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which spans West Virginia, Pennsylvania, the Catskills and upstate New York and is purportedly rich in natural gas.
The Upper Delaware and Catskill reservoirs make up the New York City watershed. A spill or contamination in this region could potentially affect the health of millions of people. As we have seen with the Gulf Oil spill, energy exploration is something that cannot be taken lightly. It is important to understand the nuances, to educate ourselves about the potential health hazards and speak up about our concerns.
If you would like to learn more about natural gas drilling, visit Propublica or watch Gasland, winner of The Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, premiering on HBO on June 21st.
Vincent Pedre, M.D. is an integrative, Holistic General Practitioner and Board-Certified Internist in private practice in New York City.
More from ecomii:
1. Howarth, R. “Preliminary Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Natural Gas obtained by Hydraulic Fracturing,” Cornell University, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Draft, March 17, 2010
2. Incidence of Leukemia and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 102, Number 6-7, June-July 1994
3. Theo Colborn, Ph.D. The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/
4. Diamanti-Kandarakis E et al. 2009 Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: An Endocrine Society Scientific Statement, Endocrine Reviews 30(4):293–342.
5. Lustgarten, A. EPA Launches National Study of Hydraulic Fracturing. Propublica, March 18, 2010