The study, Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health, is available as a preview of the upcoming issue of New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. Authors Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, and veterinarian Michelle Bamberger interviewed animal owners in Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New York and Louisiana who live near hydrofracking operations. Hydrofracking is a process for extracting natural gas from shale using chemicals and water.
“Communities living near hydrocarbon gas drilling operations have become de facto laboratories for the study of environmental toxicology,” wrote Oswald and Bamberger. “The close proximity of these operations to small communities has created a variety of potential hazards to humans, companion animals, livestock and wildlife.”
The findings illustrate which aspects of the drilling process may lead to health problems and suggest modifications that would lessen but not eliminate impacts. According to the researchers, complete evidence regarding health impacts of gas drilling cannot be obtained due to incomplete testing and disclosure of chemicals and the widespread use of nondisclosure agreements when settlements have been reached between the companies and farmers who claim their animals or families have been harmed by hydrofracking. The companies involved in hydrofracking resist sharing information about the chemicals used and the actual process itself because they feel it is proprietary, claim Oswald and Bamberger.
“Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom sweeping the world will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale,” wrote the authors.
Oswald and Bamberger cited 24 cases where animals potentially were affected by gas drilling. “We have a number of case studies; they don’t tell us about the prevalence of problems associated with hydraulic fracturing, but they do tell us how things can happen,” said Oswald.
For example, a farmer in Louisiana separated his cows into two herds, with 36 cows in fields without creek access and 60 cows in a pasture with a creek where hydrofracking wastewater allegedly was dumped. Twenty-one cows in the herd that were exposed to creek water died, and 16 failed to produce calves. None of the 36 cows that were in pastures without creek access became ill or died, although one did fail to produce a calf.
In another case, workers with a company conducting hydrofracking operations allegedly slit the wastewater impoundment container, exposing 140 cows to wastewater that subsequently drained into a pond and pasture. Half the cows died, and there was a high incidence of stillborn and stunted calves among the cows that lived.
"These farmers saw workers slitting the liner to decrease the amount of liquid in the impoundment in order to refill it," said Bamberger. "We have heard it now on several occasions."
In some cases, the owners of the animals were exposed upon using their wells or spring water for drinking, cooking, showering and bathing. Upper respiratory symptoms (including burning of the nose and throat) and burning of the eyes were the most commonly reported. Headaches and symptoms associated with the gastrointestinal (vomiting, diarrhea), dermatological (rashes) and vascular (nosebleeds) systems commonly were reported.
“The most striking finding of our investigations was the difficulty in obtaining definitive information on the link between hydrocarbon gas drilling and health effects,” commented Bamberger and Oswald.
They concluded that complete testing of soil, water, air and animals should be conducted prior to any hydrofracking operations, and at regular intervals once drilling begins and is completed. Companies also should be more forthcoming about the chemicals and the concentrations of the chemicals used in the fracking process.
The authors suggested that when public health is at stake, nondisclosure agreements should be prohibited. Certain wastewater by-products of hydrofracking are not considered hazardous and because they contain high concentrations of salt, often are used for deicing roads or are sprayed on roads to minimize dust. Oswald and Bamberger suggested that this practice be discontinued.
“Animals, especially livestock, are sensitive to the contaminants released into the environment by drilling and by its cumulative impacts,” wrote Oswald and Bamberger. “Documentation of cases in six states strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses and wildlife. Although the lack of complete testing of water, air, soil and animal tissues hampers thorough analysis of the connection between gas drilling and health, policy changes could assist in the collection of more complete data sets and also partially mitigate the risk to humans and animals.”