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The Human Cancer Risks Posed by Extreme Fossil Fuel Extraction

We cancer survivors, who know something about the fragility of life, hereby declare that the exchange of life-giving water for death-dealing fossil fuel is unacceptable.

Why should cancer patients in the United States and Canada—and those who love or diagnose them—care about a report about looming water shortages in distant countries such as South Africa and Argentina?

The report is " Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis." Written by  Food and Water Watch, it documents the many ways in which the technology called hydraulic fracturing threatens the world's vital water resources. That's because fracking—when combined with horizontal drilling—uses prodigious amounts of water as a high-pressure hose to blow apart bedrock. The goal is to liberate the wisps of oil or bubbles of gas trapped inside.

The gas or oil flows up and out of the bore hole. But in the process, the water used to free it becomes caught within the fractured rock. Entombed a mile or more below the water table, this water is removed from the Earth's hydrologic cycle and now resides in the geological underworld. Permanently.

It will never again fall as rain. Or irrigate a field. Or cap a mountain with snow. Or flow through an aqueduct to a city full of people with sinks and bathtubs and teakettles and toothbrushes.

In essence, fracking is a hostage exchange program: to release fossil fuel from the subterranean grip of limestone or shale, water takes its place.

To be sure, some portion of the water used for fracking does return to the surface once the pressure is released. But the flowback water is now contaminated in ways that make it undrinkable. And the technology to make it pristine again does not exist. So it's ruined.

Moreover, it's poisonous enough to necessitate permanent containment somewhere. This problem has no good solution. ("Potential disposal options... are currently unclear," concludes  one official analysis.)

Just to review: Fresh water is not the ninety-nine percent. Most of the planet's water is salty. A mere thimbleful— one percent—of the world's aquatic resources is available to us as liquid, drinkable water. Global climate change is quickly siphoning away that slim amount, putting us on track for widespread water shortages.

Meanwhile, millions of gallons of water are required for each horizontally fracked well. And fracking is under way or under consideration in nations all around the world, including Argentina, China, Poland, and South Africa.

According to the new report from Food and Water Watch, fracking will only exacerbate the global water crisis and, were this technology to continue its advance across the world, could actually drive it.

The whole situation sounds urgently concerning. But maybe not urgently concerning in a personal way, especially if you are leading an overscheduled, complicated life full of other things to worry about. For example, if you are waiting for results from the last biopsy, or fasting for a colonoscopy, or fighting with your insurance company (and I myself have done all three in the last month),  Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis might not rise to the top of your reading list.

But it should. Because woven throughout its carefully footnoted pages as a thoughtful subplot is a description of the human cancer risks posed by extreme fossil fuel extraction. It's one of the best summaries I've seen.

Some of the cancer risk from fracking comes from the thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals that are added to the millions of gallons of fracking water to make it slick or to kill off bacteria. Indeed, potential carcinogens  make up 25 percent of the chemical additives used in fracking operations. Sometimes, through leaks, blow-outs, or surface spills, these chemicals migrate into water not intended for fracking.

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