Fracking is a hostage exchange program. Only the carcinogens go free.
"Shale development has been a nightmare for those exposed to the resulting pollution."—Food and Water Europe, Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis Fact Sheet
Why should cancer patients in the U.S. 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 99 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.
As detailed in the report, fracking has been implicated in the contamination of surface and groundwater supplies across the U.S. In Pennsylvania, more than 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid containing a suspected carcinogen spilled into a waterway. In Parker County, Texas, fracked gas wells poisoned a drinking water aquifer with benzene and methane. Likewise, in Pavillion, Wyo., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found benzene in groundwater and wells. Benzene exposure is strongly associated with childhood leukemia.
Think about that the next time you're asked to donate to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Some of the cancer risk from fracking comes from the release of naturally occurring chemicals found deep in the earth. One of them is radium-226, which is as radioactive as its name implies. Of more than 240 fracked gas wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, almost three-fourths produced wastewater with elevated levels of radiation.
Mull that over the next time you're glancing at the pamphlets on breast cancer in your gynecologist's office and encounter a phrase like exposure to ionizing radiation increases your risk for breast cancer.
Bromides are another naturally occurring substance unearthed by fracking. The cancer risk here is created when fracking wastewater is run through sewage treatment plants, enters rivers and streams, and then is subsequently chlorinated for drinking water downstream. The bromides combine with organic matter to create brominated trihalomethanes, which are well-described carcinogens linked to both bladder and colon cancer.
Ponder that the next time you prep for a colonoscopy or climb up on the urologist's table for a cystoscopic exam.
Carcinogens can also evaporate from frack wastewater and become air pollutants. When volatile organic chemicals, such as benzene and formaldehyde, combine with diesel exhaust from the heavy machinery and fleets of tanker trucks that haul the water to the well sites, the result is smog—ground-level ozone—which can travel hundreds of miles on prevailing winds. Ozone is not a carcinogen per se, but animal studies show that, because it creates inflammation, it can raise the risk for metastases. Moreover, diesel exhaust is, all by itself, a probable lung carcinogen.
Meditate on that while lying in the MRI machine.
As the new fracking report makes clear, it's extremely difficult to establish links between individual diagnoses and particular chemicals used, released or created by fracking operations. Nevertheless, when carcinogens are released into the common environment, an ongoing public health and environmental experiment is set in motion, and people are placed in harm's way, often without their consent. Moreover, as the report goes on to say, "many of these problems are inherent to the process and cannot be avoided through regulation."
On this basis, Bulgaria and France have both enacted nationwide bans on fracking. Vigorous public protest contributed to both of these decisions and led the French environment minister to concede, "We have seen the results in the U.S. There are risks for the water tables and these are risks we don't want to take."
As a bladder cancer survivor, I don't want to take these risks either. So here's where cancer patients come in. Even with one hand tied to the chemotherapy drip, we can write letters and make phone calls. All together, we are a mighty coalition with a towering pile of medical bills. We can send a powerful message. Here's an example:
Fracking, a leading contributor to The New Global Water Crisis, threatens to exacerbate The Old Global Cancer Crisis, which is a really expensive problem (see attached invoice from my radiologist). We cancer survivors, who know something about the preciousness and fragility of life, hereby declare that the exchange of life-giving water for death-dealing fossil fuel is unacceptable. It's holding us all hostage.
We do not consent to the delivery of our drinking water into the radioactive bowels of the earth. We will not negotiate with those who think that additional cases of leukemia, bladder, colon and lung cancer are just part of the price you pay for gas. Tear up the ransom note. Find another energy plan. Set a sustainable course.
For extra emphasis, place the call from your oncologist's office. Hit the send button while the IV drip is being changed. Add a plastic hospital wrist bracelet to the envelope. Or a collage constructed of ultrasound images. Or a lock of hair—the one that fell out in the shower shortly after the treatments began. Speaking out takes many forms.
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With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.
They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.
When Leaders and Doctors Spread Misinformation<p>When people in charge of towns, cities, states, and countries spread misinformation, the potential for belief in misinformation to result in policies can have harmful effects.</p><p><a href="https://www.northwell.edu/find-care/find-a-doctor?q=Bruce+E.+Hirsch%2C+MD&insurance=&location=&query_type=provider&physician_partners=false&default_view=list&gender=&language=&sort=relevancy" target="_blank">Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch</a>, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, says an example of this is when President Trump informed the public he was taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure.</p><p>"To approach this enormous challenge, we need some intellectual honesty and clarity, and to disregard expertise and to make decisions and model decisions based on hunches is inviting us to handle challenges on the basis of rumor and uninformed opinion. The magnitude of that error is epic," Hirsch told Healthline.</p><p>Stukus agrees, noting that the harm of this proclamation is documented.</p><p>"Early on when the president touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin, people started to hoard this medicine, and state boards had to shut it down because they were getting so many prescriptions for this unproven therapy that it was not available for those who truly needed it, such as those who have lupus and autoimmune conditions," Stukus said.</p><p>He adds that calls to poison control centers increased after the president suggested using disinfectant to prevent contracting the new coronavirus.</p>
Listen to Science, Even When it Changes<p>When recommendations change or evidence flip-flops, skepticism may arise. However, Stukus says change is the beauty of science.</p><p>"That shows us that we can evolve, and if the evidence shows that our prior thoughts were incorrect, we need to be able to change our recommendations and advice based upon the best quality of evidence at the time," he said.</p><p>Pierre agrees.</p><p>"Science is an iterative process, whereby we arrive at facts and truth through repeated and controlled observations. That means that it's inherently self-correcting as we revise conclusions based on ongoing research. Scientific facts aren't immutable dogma chiseled on a tablet. They change based on the best available evidence we have at a given point in time," he said.</p><p>Because research of COVID-19 has only been underway for 6 months, information is evolving rapidly, and new information may contradict old.</p><p>"There's still much we don't know about exactly how [COVID-19] spreads, what effects it has on the body, or how to best treat it. That means that the best available evidence is preliminary, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore it or turn to other sources of information or opinion as if they're just as valid," Pierre said.</p><p>He explains that conspiracy theories based on mistrust lead to vulnerability to misinformation.</p><p>If people mistrust science because it sometimes "changes its mind," Pierre said, "that shouldn't be used to embrace other opinions based on no evidence at all, which are typically selected based on confirmation bias: what we want to believe rather than what the objective evidence supports."</p>
Where to Find the Best Information<p>Stukus says to start with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html" target="_blank">CDC</a> and <a href="https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus" target="_blank">NIH</a>. Then check with your local health officials, because COVID-19 guidelines may vary depending on where you live.</p><p>If you can't find information you need or have questions specifically related to you, call your primary care doctor.</p><p>"Your personal doctor should always be a resource for individual specific questions because they know best how to apply all the nuances retaining to your health, and how to incorporate all the other general [COVID-19] recommendations," Stukus said.</p><p><a href="https://www.eehealth.org/find-a-doctor/b/boyd-laura-b/" target="_blank">Dr. Laura Boyd</a>, primary care physician at Edward-Elmhurst Health Center in Elmhurst, Illinois, says her clinic receives a lot of calls about COVID-19.</p><p>"Most doctors' offices are receiving calls and answering questions, and doing phone or video visits to help clarify and/or order testing over the phone based on patients' symptoms. It is always best to call your doctor's office first instead of worrying about symptoms and waiting too long to seek treatment," she told Healthline.</p><p>If your primary care doctor has limited testing, she suggests looking on your state's public health website for available testing sites.</p><p>With a lot of unknowns related to this virus and disease, Boyd says many patients are feeling overwhelmed and anxious for a treatment.</p><p>"Unfortunately, there is no specific medication recommended for COVID for outpatient. There are a lot of ongoing studies with various drugs going on within the hospital setting. Patients should always contact their doctors about their specific symptoms as they can treat the symptoms that go along with COVID, but there is no cure," Boyd said.</p><p>While we wait for treatment and a vaccine, Hirsch, who treats patients hospitalized for COVID-19 complications on a daily basis, says everyone can do their part by washing hands, wearing a mask, and staying 6 feet apart.</p><p>"As an infectious disease doctor working in the hospital, I see the damage of the pandemic and the worst cases of what's happening. We are trying to get the best possible outcome and confronting this overwhelming biologic reality of this terrible epidemic the best we can," Hirsch said.</p><p>Everyone at home can help in the fight too, he adds.</p><p>"Follow information that is science- and evidence-based, and avoid that which is not," he said.</p>
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