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Investigation Into Chemical Exposure From Fracking in Pennsylvania Provokes Call for Rapid Phaseout

"Pennsylvania's children should not be used as laboratory rats," said biologist Sandra Steingraber, who called fracking "an uncontrolled human experiment" that involves "toxic exposures."

The Belski Valve Yard is located in Daisytown, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

The Belski Valve Yard is located in Daisytown, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

"While financial analysts, policymakers, and massive corporations squabble over the finer points of the fracking debate, families living amidst the wells day in and day out live in constant fear about what the industry might cost them—if they had another child, would they need to worry about birth defects? Are these exposures increasing their kids' cancer risk? Would it be safer to move to a place far away from all of this, even if it would also mean being far from their extended families, friends, and communities? And even if they could move, how far would they have to go to feel safe?"

Those are just some of the questions facing the western Pennsylvania families featured in a report published Monday by Environmental Health News (EHN), a publication of the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences. Five families from the region participated in a pilot study on the chemicals commonly found in emissions from fracking sites.

"The only method of mitigating fracking's grave threats to public health is a rapid, comprehensive phaseout of fracking."
—Sandra Steingraber, Concerned Health Professionals of New York

Sandra Steingraber of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, a group that has long sounded the alarm about the impact of fracking—which largely affects poor and rural households—responded by calling for an end to the process.

"Consider[ed] together with the results of previous studies, the findings of this multi-part investigation serve as a powerful moral indictment of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, which has long privileged gas industry interests over protecting the health of Pennsylvania residents," Steingraber said. "Pennsylvania's children should not be used as laboratory rats in an uncontrolled human experiment involv[ing] toxic exposures."

"In light of today's revelatory investigation, Concerned Health Professionals of New York reiterates our call: The risks and harms of fracking to public health are inherent to its operation," Steingraber added. "The only method of mitigating fracking's grave threats to public health is a rapid, comprehensive phaseout of fracking."

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an extraction method that involves injecting a mix of water, sand, and secret chemicals into a rock formation to extract oil or natural gas. Western Pennsylvania is a major U.S. hub for the practice due to the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia that holds (pdf) trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Aided by scientific advisers, EHN conducted a two-year investigation intended to "provide a snapshot of environmental exposures in people living near fracking wells and help pave the way for additional research on a larger scale." Over the course of nine weeks in 2019, EHN collected a total of 59 urine samples, 39 air samples, and 13 water samples from five nonsmoking local households, all of which had at least one child.

Samples collected from the families—two in Westmoreland County, at least five miles away from a fracking well, and three in Washington County, within two miles of fracking infrastructure—were then analyzed by scientists at the University of Missouri for 40 chemicals associated with fracking site emissions. As EHN detailed:

We found chemicals like benzene and butylcyclohexane in drinking water and air samples, and breakdown products for chemicals like ethylbenzene, styrene, and toluene in the bodies of children living near fracking wells at levels up to 91 times as high as the average American and substantially higher than levels seen in the average adult cigarette smoker.

The chemicals we found in the air and water—and inside of people's bodies—are linked to a wide range of harmful health impacts, from skin and respiratory irritation to organ damage and increased cancer risk.

Protect PT co-founder and executive director Gillian Graber started the group in 2015 to oppose a proposed fracking well near her home in Penn Township.

EHN found that in August 2019, Graber's 9-year-old daughter Lilly had the highest detected level of a biomarker for xylene—which is "linked to skin, eye, and respiratory tract irritation, drowsiness and dizziness, and organ damage with high levels of long-term exposure"—of anyone in the study.

"It's pretty shocking to know that our children, especially, are being exposed to this stuff," Graber told EHN. "We take great pains to make sure we're not exposed to things."

The project, "Fractured: The body burden of living near fracking," includes photos and videos of the families as well as a four-part series by EHN's Kristina Marusic:

Chris Kassotis, assistant professor at Wayne State University's Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and Department of Pharmacology, was one of at least 20 experts who helped with the project.

In a series of tweets Monday, he highlighted the "amazing series of articles" that came from the study and noted that this "really important body of work" from EHN adds to "very limited existing biomonitoring data on people in these regions."

Kassotis also expressed hope that recently sworn-in President Joe Biden "will pay a bit more attention to these ongoing #health struggles for so many across the U.S."

While many environmentalists and scientists—even those critical of Biden's record—rallied behind the president for the November election, they also criticized him on the campaign trail for his refusal to support a national ban on fracking.

Steingraber also congratulated EHN and Marusic for publishing the "groundbreaking investigation of toxic exposures from drilling and fracking operations." 

"This investigation represents the first comprehensive body burden analysis of residents living in areas targeted by fracking," she noted. "As such, it fills in an important data gap and strongly suggests that the toxic emissions from fracking operations are entering the bodies of nearby residents at levels known to cause harm. Like the body burden results that documented lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan from contaminated drinking water, today's findings show that fracking is poisoning children."

A biologist, author, and cancer survivor, Steingraber co-authored the seventh edition of The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking. That analysis, released in December, reviewed nearly 2,000 academic, government, and journalistic reports about fracking's environmental and health impacts.

"Our knowledge about the dangers of fracking is now both broad and deep," she said at the time. "All together, thousands of scientific studies, reports, and investigations show us that extracting oil and gas by shattering the nation's bedrock with water and chemicals creates fundamental, intrinsic, unfixable problems."

"Toxic pollution, water contamination, earthquakes, radioactive releases, and methane emissions follow fracking wherever it goes," Steingraber said. "Some of these problems get worse after depleted wells are abandoned, and no set of regulations is capable of preventing harm."

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