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Will Fracking Sicken and Kill More New Yorkers Than it Employs?

Here is why we need a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment to determine what high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing would mean for the health of New Yorkers.

Photo Credit: Dean Photography


Four years of study and thousands of pages have been devoted to the study of fracking’s impact on New York’s environment, but no such analysis has been carried out for public health. A thorough investigation of fracking’s impact on human health is desperately needed. Still unanswered are three fundamental questions: Will fracking sicken and kill more New Yorkers than it employs? Will the sick and dying have any recourse—other than fleeing their homes and jobs—to protect themselves? And how much will that morbidity and mortality cost?

New Yorkers Against Fracking joins the call for a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) to determine what high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing would mean for the health of New Yorkers. Designed in accord with national and international health guidelines and inclusive of public participation, a comprehensive HIA is the widely accepted standard for prospective health studies. This HIA should include quantitative and economic analyses and must be led by an independent team of expert researchers untethered to gas industry funding or state agencies led by political appointees. An expedient, ad-hoc “review” that is not carried out with transparency and public input and that does not follow the established protocols of a comprehensive HIA is unacceptable. Any public health impact identified during a course of careful study as an unresolvable problem must, by the Governor’s own standards, serve to halt the entry of fracking in New York State.

Shale Gas: the New Leaded Gas?

As a framework of comparative understanding, here’s a story for our time. In 1922, General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline alleviated its tendency to burn explosively under high compression. Solving this problem meant that engines could be made bigger and cars faster. (Ethanol could have served this function, but it could not be patented and was therefore not profitable to the oil companies.) In 1923, when leaded gas hit the market, alarmed public health officials raised urgent concerns about the wisdom of broadcasting a brain poison into public air space. Meanwhile, refinery workers whose jobs involved formulating the lead additive began suffering hallucinations.

These reports reached the U.S. Surgeon General, who convened a meeting in 1925 to address the possible health impacts of lead dust exposure. The result was a moratorium that prohibited the sale of leaded gas until a thorough investigation could be completed.

Immediately, the lead industry helped fund a health study. It found. . .no problems. At least, none that couldn’t be easily mitigated.

Medical professionals cried foul.  The study did not take cumulative impacts into account and was not designed to reveal the long-term effects of exposures in early life. Nevertheless, the negative results were reassuring enough to get the moratorium lifted. Leaded gasoline went back on sale.

And stayed on sale for seventy years. As a result, 15.4 billion pounds of lead dust were released from the nation’s tailpipes into the air. By the time scientists were able to document, with proof, the  tragic consequences—namely, serious risks for irreversible lead poisoning among those living near busy roadways—three generations of children had been damaged.

Leaded gasoline was finally banned for good in 1990. Even the tightest regulations were unable to control this menace to public health—and to workers. Lead paint is also now banned, and for the same reason. The consequence?  Since the sun has set on both leaded gas and leaded paint, the incidence of mental retardation has fallen significantly and average I.Q. has risen. Nevertheless and however outlawed, lead’s legacy remains: the soil in urban communities throughout the Northeast is still too full of this toxic metal to grow garden vegetables safely. Thus, the findings of a hasty study, conducted ninety years ago under the influence of a powerful, well-funded industry and accepted by public agencies cowed by that industry, explains why children in many Boston neighborhoods still cannot eat garden carrots or make mud pies in their own backyards without risking cognitive deficits.

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