While New York Health Review Remains in the Shadows, U Penn Leads National Effort to Shine Light on Health Harms of Fracking

While New York’s on-going review of the health impacts from fracking remains cloaked in secrecy, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Excellence in Environmental Toxicology announced this week that it will be organizing a coalition of researchers from top universities—including Columbia, Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina—to undertake a series of rigorous new studies of the health harms of fracking.  If done right, the studies could provide critical new information regarding both the extent and cause of health problems reported across shale country.

The decision by the U Penn to undertake these studies provides a clear illustration of why we have been urging New York not to move forward with fracking until it completely considers the health risks.  It demonstrates just how little is known about those risks and, therefore, how much more science needs to be developed before final decisions are made.  Simply put, no one knows enough now about what is going wrong in other states to be able to say with any degree of certainty that particular rules could or would effectively protect New Yorkers’ health.

To understand why the studies are so important, let’s review what we know and don’t know.  Right now, what we know that there are a lot of environmental impacts associated with gas production using fracking—ranging from emissions of air pollutants from well sites, compressor stations and heavy truck traffic, to chemical spills and drinking water contamination, to habitat and forest fragmentation, to industrialization of communities – some of which can cause serious harm to human health.  We also know that in communities where fracking occurs  many residents are reporting a range of health impacts, including respiratory, neurological and digestive problems they associate with facilities in their backyards and communities.

Unfortunately, however, because there is no comprehensive information on contamination and other impacts from fracking, we can’t say for certain whether, and if so what aspect of, oil and gas development might be causing these reported symptoms.  Nor, if such development is responsible, can we answer how or why they are getting sick, depriving the doctors encountering these patients of the necessary information relevant to their patients’ conditions.

And it’s not just doctors that need health information about fracking.  If a state wants to protect its people from a potential toxic harm by setting up the right safeguards, it first has to know what the harm is and how people are impacted.  In other words, before you can create a solution, you have to understand what the problem is that you are solving for.

Understanding the problem is what it looked like New York was planning to do in November when it announced plans to do its own comprehensive health assessment of fracking.  But since then, sadly, the state has failed to “show its work” by releasing any details of what it’s studying, or how it’s being studied.  And although the state brought on high-profile outside experts to assist in the review, they are being collared by a cap of only 25 hours on their work.  In a disappointing sign of what may be to come, a leaked report on January 3 revealed that the state had already concluded—prior even to agreeing to conduct a health review—that its pre-existing regulatory plan for fracking would prevent all significant health harms.

But even if New York’s decision makers are not worried, yesterday’s announcement demonstrates that public health experts from our nation’s top universities are.  In undertaking these studies, they are answering the call made a year ago by Christopher Portier, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health for more research into the impacts of fracking on human health.

Governor Cuomo has repeatedly sought to assure New Yorkers that any final decisions to proceed with fracking would be made on the basis of sound science.  U Penn’s newly announced studies show that – at least when it comes to the health risks – we don’t have the information to answer the most important questions.  Before making any decisions as to whether to finalize its regulations on fracking, New York should either wait for the results of these first-of-their-kind, independent studies or demonstrate how its own review provides the critical health information on fracking that medical and public health professionals have long been saying is missing.

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