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Another study has further cemented how fracking can be a human health hazard. People who live close to fracking wells have a higher risk of asthma attacks among asthma patients, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

The location of spudded wells (drilling begun) as of December 2012 and residential locations of Geisinger patients with asthma

The paper, published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, focused on Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, one of the country's most active and notorious fracking regions. In the years between 2005 and 2013, the area has seen 6,253 unconventional natural gas wells spudded (the start of drilling) on 2,710 pads. Another 4,728 wells were stimulated and 3,706 were in production.

For the study, lead author and PhD candidate Sara G. Rasmussen, MHS and her colleagues analyzed health records from 2005 through 2012 from the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The researchers identified more than 35,000 asthma patients between the ages of five and 90 years, identifying 20,749 mild attacks, 1,870 moderate ones and 4,782 severe attacks. They then mapped where these patients lived relative to nearby well activity.

The data revealed that people who live nearby a large number or bigger active natural gas wells were 1.5 to 4 times more likely to suffer from asthma attacks compared to those who live farther away. The risk also showed up in all four phases of well development: pad preparation, drilling, stimulation—the actual fracturing—and production.

While the exact cause of the trend was not identified, the authors of the paper suggested that exposure to air pollution and psychosocial stress—increased truck traffic, loud noises and bright lights disrupting sleep—from drilling operation can exacerbate asthma.

“Ours is the first to look at asthma but we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells," Rasmussen said. “Going forward, we need to focus on the exact reasons why these things are happening, because if we know why, we can help make the industry safer."

Fracking can induce asthma attacks in three ways, as Barbara Gottlieb, the Environment and Health program director at Physicians for Social Responsibility who was not involved in the study explained to USA TODAY. As USA TODAY writes, "the release of volatile organic compounds can interact with other chemicals in the fracking sites to form ground-level ozone, an asthma-inducing pollutant. Increased industrial activity near fracking sites, such as transportation, also aggravates asthma symptoms. And natural gas, or methane, leaks that occur at fracking sites add to asthma exacerbation as well by accelerating climate change and increasing temperatures which increases ground-level ozone."

This paper adds to the mounting research linking the fracking industry to various health impacts. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water and silica sand, and a slurry of toxic chemicals at high pressures into the ground to release gas deposits.

"We are concerned with the growing number of studies that have observed health effects associated with this industry," said Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, an author of the study and professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. "We believe it is time to take a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts."

"Asthma is a common disease with large individual and societal burdens, so the possibility that UNGD [Unconventional natural gas development] may increase risk for asthma exacerbations requires public health attention," the authors concluded. "As ours is the first study to our knowledge of UNGD and objective respiratory outcomes, and several other health outcomes have not been investigated to date, there is an urgent need for more health studies. These should include more detailed exposure assessment to better characterize pathways and to identify the phases of development that present the most risk."

Earlier this year, researchers found that at least five chemicals associated with unconventional oil and gas operations are linked to respiratory health issues on infants and children, including asthma, reduced lung and pulmonary function, increased susceptibility to infection, chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, lung inflammation and other adverse outcomes.

For environmental advocates, this study is further evidence why fracking is unsafe.

"This study's findings confirm what we have known for years—that fracking is an inherently hazardous process that threatens human health and safety every day," Wenonah Hauter, founder and executive director of Food & Water Watch said. "More than 17 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking site, and they are all at risk. Despite countless dollars spent by the oil and gas industry in numerous attempts to sway public opinion, the truth is winning out. As recent polling proves, the more Americans hear about fracking, the more they oppose it."

Karen Feridun of Berks Gas Truth and Pennsylvanians Against Fracking said, "This Johns Hopkins study should be a wake-up call to Governor Wolf and Physician General Levine that fracking is causing serious harm to Pennsylvania children and families. How can Governor Wolf sit idly by as study after study comes out out revealing severe health impacts to his constituents as a result of his pro-fracking policies?"

In related news, environmentalists are currently preparing for the March for a Clean Energy Revolution at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Sunday, July 24 to demand that the country end its reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy and shift towards renewable energy.

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Another study has further cemented how fracking can be a human health hazard. People who live close to fracking wells have a higher risk of asthma attacks among asthma patients, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study.

The location of spudded wells (drilling begun) as of December 2012 and residential locations of Geisinger patients with asthma

The paper, published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, focused on Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, one of the country's most active and notorious fracking regions. In the years between 2005 and 2013, the area has seen 6,253 unconventional natural gas wells spudded (the start of drilling) on 2,710 pads. Another 4,728 wells were stimulated and 3,706 were in production.

For the study, lead author and PhD candidate Sara G. Rasmussen, MHS and her colleagues analyzed health records from 2005 through 2012 from the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The researchers identified more than 35,000 asthma patients between the ages of five and 90 years, identifying 20,749 mild attacks, 1,870 moderate ones and 4,782 severe attacks. They then mapped where these patients lived relative to nearby well activity.

The data revealed that people who live nearby a large number or bigger active natural gas wells were 1.5 to 4 times more likely to suffer from asthma attacks compared to those who live farther away. The risk also showed up in all four phases of well development: pad preparation, drilling, stimulation—the actual fracturing—and production.

While the exact cause of the trend was not identified, the authors of the paper suggested that exposure to air pollution and psychosocial stress—increased truck traffic, loud noises and bright lights disrupting sleep—from drilling operation can exacerbate asthma.

“Ours is the first to look at asthma but we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells," Rasmussen said. “Going forward, we need to focus on the exact reasons why these things are happening, because if we know why, we can help make the industry safer."

Fracking can induce asthma attacks in three ways, as Barbara Gottlieb, the Environment and Health program director at Physicians for Social Responsibility who was not involved in the study explained to USA TODAY. As USA TODAY writes, "the release of volatile organic compounds can interact with other chemicals in the fracking sites to form ground-level ozone, an asthma-inducing pollutant. Increased industrial activity near fracking sites, such as transportation, also aggravates asthma symptoms. And natural gas, or methane, leaks that occur at fracking sites add to asthma exacerbation as well by accelerating climate change and increasing temperatures which increases ground-level ozone."

This paper adds to the mounting research linking the fracking industry to various health impacts. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water and silica sand, and a slurry of toxic chemicals at high pressures into the ground to release gas deposits.

"We are concerned with the growing number of studies that have observed health effects associated with this industry," said Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, an author of the study and professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. "We believe it is time to take a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts."

"Asthma is a common disease with large individual and societal burdens, so the possibility that UNGD [Unconventional natural gas development] may increase risk for asthma exacerbations requires public health attention," the authors concluded. "As ours is the first study to our knowledge of UNGD and objective respiratory outcomes, and several other health outcomes have not been investigated to date, there is an urgent need for more health studies. These should include more detailed exposure assessment to better characterize pathways and to identify the phases of development that present the most risk."

Earlier this year, researchers found that at least five chemicals associated with unconventional oil and gas operations are linked to respiratory health issues on infants and children, including asthma, reduced lung and pulmonary function, increased susceptibility to infection, chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, lung inflammation and other adverse outcomes.

For environmental advocates, this study is further evidence why fracking is unsafe.

"This study's findings confirm what we have known for years—that fracking is an inherently hazardous process that threatens human health and safety every day," Wenonah Hauter, founder and executive director of Food & Water Watch said. "More than 17 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking site, and they are all at risk. Despite countless dollars spent by the oil and gas industry in numerous attempts to sway public opinion, the truth is winning out. As recent polling proves, the more Americans hear about fracking, the more they oppose it."

Karen Feridun of Berks Gas Truth and Pennsylvanians Against Fracking said, "This Johns Hopkins study should be a wake-up call to Governor Wolf and Physician General Levine that fracking is causing serious harm to Pennsylvania children and families. How can Governor Wolf sit idly by as study after study comes out out revealing severe health impacts to his constituents as a result of his pro-fracking policies?"

In related news, environmentalists are currently preparing for the March for a Clean Energy Revolution at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Sunday, July 24 to demand that the country end its reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy and shift towards renewable energy.

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You would be pretty frustrated if you lived in a state where politicians seemed to ignore concerns about an industry responsible for explosions and drinking water so dirty that it looks more like apple juice, right?

You might even be angry enough to speak out at a big event attended by fellow residents and gubernatorial hopefuls. Of course, you run the risk of getting escorted off the premises if your tone is deemed too confrontational or your voice too loud. Once that happens, you'll just be written off as some crazy person, regardless how valid your points are.

That's what happened to Elizabeth Arnold when she attended a recent Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial debate. She approached the stage demanding to know why candidates had no plans to discuss fracking, despite its well-documented impact on the health of Pennsylvania residents. She even brought a list of 1,700 families that have been impacted by hydraulic fracturing. She held the list up the whole time she spoke, likely to assure people that she had no weapon or violent intentions.

Because Arnold's appearance was unexpected and loud, fracking proponents had the benefit of dismissing her with boos and calls to "get her out of here," which is a shame.

"We can't fund our schools on a boom-or-bust industry," Arnold said before she was ushered off the stage. "They're poisoning our state and ruining our chance for a strong economic future."

The race for the Democratic nomination features four candidates, including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord. The primary election takes places Tuesday.

"I’m not particularly brave, I just feel that there is nothing anyone could do to me worse than what they are doing to our planet and to the families who can no longer live in their homes," Arnold wrote in a blog post hosted by Gasland, which made the short clip its "video of the week.”

"I actually hate the spotlight, but someone had to do it. I could not sit by and let this critical issue go unaddressed."

The list of families Arnold held up—entitled the "List of the Harmed" and compiled Jenny Lysak and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air—actually exceeds 6,000. The 1,700 families were all Arnold's printer could handle.

"We are not asking for much, just a chance for Pennsylvania to protect our long-term economic and environmental health," wrote Arnold, who is a Philadelphia-based activist when she is not working. "No one should live without clean drinking water and a safe environment.

"No part of Pennsylvania should be a for-profit sacrifice zone."

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A Look Back at the Town That Didn’t Back Down to Fracking

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By Kate Sinding

The Los Angeles Times published a story yesterday reporting on a leaked document that indicates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has never conveyed to the public the possibility that methane released during drilling “and perhaps during the fracking process" resulted in “significant," and possibly long-term, “damage to the water quality" of a drinking water source for 19 families in Dimock, PA, even though some staff believed this was the case.

A Dimock, PA, resident who did not want to be identified pours a glass of water taken from his well after the start of natural gas drilling in 2009. Photo credit: Reuters

The story reports that this crucial interpretation—which stands in stark contrast to the narrative being pushed by industry that the EPA found Dimock's water to be “safe"—was evidently presented to the highest level staff in the region sometime in the spring of 2012.

Yet the EPA closed its investigation of contaminated drinking water supplies in Dimock just months later (July 2012), declaring that it was no longer necessary for residents to be provided with alternative drinking water supplies. In doing so, it provided no justification based on the data it had in its possession, which some believed pointed to significant and possibly long-term damage to local drinking water.

The EPA simply walked away and asked the public and the residents of Dimock to take its word for it. Indeed, the agency did not even mention the word “methane" at all in its press release announcing the end of the investigation. As a result, it was widely reported in the mainstream press that the EPA had found the water in Dimock was “safe" to drink, as reported in USA Today and elsewhere. This perception persists among many in the general public.

If this news is true, why has the EPA failed to provide a proper scientific explanation for effectively declaring Dimock's water safe, and why has it abandoned the residents of Dimock? Is it because of pressure from the oil & gas industry? The people of Dimock deserve some answers.

What Happened in Dimock?

In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection determined that shoddy drilling practices by Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation had resulted in methane contamination of a large aquifer in Dimock, polluting the drinking water of 19 families. The state's enforcement against Cabot then followed a tortured path: it first prohibited Cabot from drilling any further wells in the area. Then the state lifted that ban, and subsequently promised the residents of Dimock a new pipeline to supply uncontaminated drinking water from a neighboring community. Then it rescinded that promise.

Water taken from a Dimock, PA, well on March 16, 2012.

Concerned about the state's spotty enforcement, on behalf of the Dimock residents, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) asked the EPA to step in and launch its own investigation of the water quality. But when the EPA released the results of its investigation, effectively declaring Dimock's water safe, it failed to share two important pieces of information.

First, it did not share that Cabot had contaminated the water with dangerously high levels of methane.

Second, it limited the scope of its discussion to whether certain federal standards for specific contaminants—not including methane—were exceeded.

That was ostensibly because the investigation was pursuant to the EPA's specific and limited powers under the federal “Superfund" law and Safe Drinking Water Act only. These laws do not specify standards for all contaminants that may present a risk to human health and/or the potability of a water supply, including methane, certain other organic compounds and new/uncommon chemicals such as those that may be used in drilling and fracking operations.

Critically, though, some of the EPA's initial memos did reference, and express concern about the potential health impacts of, other such contaminants that were found in the families' water—including glycol compounds, Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthlate (DEHP) and 2-methoxyethanol.

But evidently a decision was made not to discuss or further pursue them in the final analysis. Indeed, the agency did not report that multiple other contaminants were, in fact, detected, at levels below those specified under those laws. And none of these contaminants, including methane, were mentioned in the EPA's final determination. Nor did the EPA mention that the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was—and is still—continuing an investigation into the potential short- and long-term health risks of using Dimock water with these chemicals present.

Yet, the leaked report made public yesterday suggests that the EPA basically declared that Dimock residents' water was okay to drink, despite the fact that some of its own staff believed that it showed serious contamination, possibly from fracking, that was likely to persist for a long time. It suggests that the EPA's own consultants, and perhaps field staff, believed not only that the Dimock aquifer had been contaminated by high levels of methane from the Marcellus Shale, but that this contamination resulted in “significant damage to the water quality."

Actor Mark Ruffalo,New York State resident and anti-fracking activist, holds a gallon jug of drinking water from Dimock, PA.

So, once again, we are left with the question why—in the face of these doubts,—the EPA would decide to terminate its investigation in Dimock without making public any analysis of its data that supports its decision to walk away, and instead keep internal dissenting views a secret. And why—a year later—haven't they investigated those views further to determine the level of risk?

Troubling Trend at the EPA

Unfortunately, what appears to have happened in Dimock, PA, is just the latest in a larger, troubling trend we're seeing of the EPA failing to act on science in controversial fracking cases across the country. Instead, the agency appears to be systematically pulling back from high-profile fracking investigations.

First, in March of 2012—without explanation—the EPA abruptly withdrew an emergency order it had issued two years earlier against Range Resources Corporation after the agency found nearby natural gas production operations from the company had likely caused methane and toxic chemical contamination in Parker County, TX, drinking water supplies. The order had required Range Resources to provide families with alternative water supplies, install explosivity meters in homes and remediate the aquifer.

But there is no evidence the company ever fully completed these or other requirements of the order. Yet the agency withdrew the emergency order. In fact, reports indicate the water there remains contaminated and a health threat, and the EPA Inspector General is investigating the matter.

On top of that, the Associated Press reported that a leaked confidential report proved that the EPA had scientific evidence against Range, but changed course after the company threatened not to cooperate with the agency's ongoing national study of fracking. The Associated Press also reported that interviews with the company confirmed this. When asked to explain its actions in light of all of this, the EPA's silence has been deafening.

Then, in late June 2013, EPA made an equally abrupt and unexplained announcement that it was abandoning an investigation into a high-profile drinking water contamination case in Pavillion, WY. That report generated fierce pushback from the oil and gas industry. Even though the U.S. Geologic Survey released its own data in 2012 that backed up the EPA's findings, suddenly, and without any meaningful explanation, the agency announced that it would not finalize its report and instead would leave matters in the hands of Wyoming regulators. As in Parker County and Dimock, these state regulators are the reason the EPA stepped in to begin with—because they had not given adequate attention to residents' drinking water complaints in the first place.

Pavillion, WY, resident Louis Meeks' well water contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper, according to the EPA's test results. When he drilled a new water well, it also showed contaminants. The drilling company Encana is supplying Meeks with drinking water. Photo credit: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

Now it seems the third shoe drops in Dimock—the latest in what was a triumvirate of highly anticipated federal fracking-related investigations.

Not only does this pattern of behavior leave impacted residents in the lurch, but it raises important questions as to whether the agency is caving to pressure from industry, antagonistic members of Congress and/or other outside sources.

Implications for the EPA's Ongoing Fracking Study

This trend also calls into serious question the agency's commitment to conducting an impartial, comprehensive assessment of the risks fracking presents to drinking water—a first-of-its-kind study that is now in its fourth year, with initial results now promised in 2014. The EPA recently announced that it had delayed the expected final date of this study by 2 years.

With communities across the country already suffering the consequences, it must deliver an impartial and thorough evaluation of the risks.

The EPA has said that there is no connection between its dropping its investigations in Dimock, Pavillion and Parker County, and that it remains committed to its national study. But if the EPA is really committed to understanding the risks of fracking to drinking water, then it doesn't make sense that the agency would drop the investigations in these three cases, where they have been collecting substantial data. By abandoning these inquiries and leaving them in the hands of state regulators that, in each case having shown they are not up to the task, the EPA is walking away from important scientific information and analysis.

Our federal government has a responsibility to protect the citizens in communities that are suffering consequences from fracking and to give them the full facts. It owes it to the American people to fully and fairly investigate every case that can help to answer some of the vexing scientific questions as to whether, and if so how, fracking and related activities contaminate drinking water. Sadly, the EPA's recent pattern of activity suggests neither has been happening.

If what we're hearing is true, this is a disturbing indication that the EPA may not be telling the American people everything it knows about the risks of fracking or providing them with the explanations that they deserve. Americans are counting on the administration to protect them against an industry that's running wild, but it is falling down on the job from one community to the next.

Visit EcoWatch's FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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