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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.

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Risks to public health from fracking arise from every stage of the gas extraction process—from the clearing of land for well pads to the disposal of toxic wastewater to the radon accompanying the gas that travels through pipelines to people’s homes—and may affect not only disease rates but also the fundamental conditions for human health. For example, with the onset of drilling and fracking operations, a community may experience dramatic increases in noise pollution, light at night, crime, and truck traffic, along with decreases in the availability of locally grown food, affordable housing, and recreational green space for exercise. All of these changes have health consequences. Traffic-related  noise pollution alone, for example, demonstrably raises the risk of heart attack and high blood pressure and cognitive deficits in children. Those who are harmed by these activities are rarely those who have chosen to pursue them and who have received any benefit.

The execution of a well-designed, expansive study does not mean simply reviewing the published literature that already exists and zeroing out uncertainties as “no effect” defaults. It means aggressively seeking out an array of data sources and bringing a multi-disciplinary approach to their analysis.

Happily, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is designed to do just that.

Four hallmark features of a comprehensive HIA make it suited to our current situation in New York: First, its sole purpose is to identify the effects of a proposed activity—in this case, fracking—on the  health of a given population and to describe the distribution of those effects within the population. Second, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment is  prospective: it is done in advance of any decision to approve or prohibit the proposed activity. Third, a comprehensive health impact assessment is  wide-ranging: it must give special consideration to vulnerable sub-populations (for example, pregnant women, infants, children, and the elderly), and it must analyze not only the causes of illness but also the conditions that affect health. (As identified by the National Academies of Science, these conditions include personal behaviors as well as social and economic factors, the built environment, and the physical environment.) Fourth, a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment is  participatory: throughout the process, it includes elements of public participation in the form of hearings, public reviews, meetings, and stakeholder consultations. Concerns suggested by members of potentially affected communities are included in the scope of the study.

In essence, a comprehensive HIA is a formal set of protocols to be used to forecast, and thus avoid, harm. Its protocols were developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the  World Health Organization (among others), and they are sanctioned by the  National Research Council. A comprehensive HIA is the accepted approach for understanding the health effects of a proposed activity.

The operative word here is  comprehensive. This adjective has specific meaning in the world of HIAs. There are several types of HIAs—including the “desktop HIA”—which is little more than a review of the available literature and that requires only a few weeks to complete. Only a comprehensive HIA requires public participation and a quantitative analysis. Quantitative analysis is the difference between saying “lowered air quality may increase slightly the risk of pediatric asthma” and saying “increasing truck traffic on rural roadways by __ percent will increase the background level of ozone in neighboring communities by __ percent and is thus predicted to increase the rate of asthma in New York’s rural children by __ percent, leading to __ number of additional children diagnosed with asthma before age five and __ additional pediatric emergency room visits per year.”

 
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