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Fracking Chemicals Remain Secret Despite EPA Knowledge of Health Hazards

Fracking
Fracking Chemicals Remain Secret Despite EPA Knowledge of Health Hazards

By Tasha Stoiber

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knows that dozens of the chemicals used in fracking pose health hazards. The agency not only allows their use, but also lets the oil and gas industry keep the chemicals secret, according to a new report.

Between 2003 and 2014 the EPA identified health hazards for 41 chemicals used in fracking, according to a report from the Partnership for Policy Integrity and Earthworks, based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Fracking is the injection of a chemical slurry into drilling sites to free up underground oil and gas deposits. Hazards from the chemicals used included irritation to eyes and skin; harm to the liver, kidney and nervous system; and damage to the developing fetus.


Nonetheless, in most cases, the EPA allowed the chemicals to be manufactured and used without further testing. What's more, the identities of the chemicals are hidden from the public, even though federal law authorizes the EPA to require disclosure of so-called trade secrets if there is unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment.

In response to the report, more than 100 scientists, health professionals and first responders wrote the EPA, asking that it make public the identities of the chemicals known to pose health hazards.

"Citizens have a right to know what health hazards we are being exposed to, especially when these hazards have been identified by government health assessments ... It is an unreasonable risk for people to be unknowingly exposed to chemicals that EPA, itself, has identified as potentially harmful," said the letter. Signers included Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream and other acclaimed books on environmental health, and Wilma Subra, winner of a MacArthur "genius" award for her work to help vulnerable communities document the health risks of industrial pollution.

A recent investigation led by the nonprofit group Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy reported that 17.6 million Americans live within a mile of least one active oil or gas well, and could be exposed to toxic chemicals used in oil and gas production. Despite these risks, there are no federal requirements for disclosure of the names and types of toxic chemicals pumped into wells near citizens' backyards. At the state level, California has adopted a comprehensive disclosure program for chemicals used in oil and gas, but most other states still allow protection of trade secrets.

Without knowing what chemicals are used, it is impossible to protect the health of communities in the vicinity of oil and gas production fields, especially the health of local children. When families near wells experience health problems they are often concerned that the wells play a role, but lack enough information to be sure, Marketplace found.

Their concerns are well-founded.

  • In 2014, a study by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health examined data on more than 100,000 births in rural Colorado between 1996 and 2009. They found an association between the the proximity of the mother's residence to natural gas production sites and an elevated risk of birth defects, such as heart and neural tube defects.
  • A recently published comprehensive analysis by a team of researchers from public health organizations and leading universities reported that chemicals used in oil and gas development—including fracking—can severely harm children's brains, causing life-long learning problems and developmental disorders.
  • Of the chemicals the EPA disclosed in response to the Partnership for Policy Integrity's open records request, nearly a quarter can damage the nervous system, especially during the sensitive early development periods of fetuses and young children.

With the mounting evidence of links between fracking and health issues, it's time for the EPA to stop suppressing information about the health risks of oil and gas production. The message from health professionals and first responders is clear: Americans deserve answers when it comes to toxic chemicals that may be used in or near their communities.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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