Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Univ. of Penn to lead a national effort to study health effects of fracking.

PHILADELPHIA – A coalition of academic researchers in the United States is preparing to shine a rigorous scientific light on the often emotional debate over whether using hydraulic fracturing to drill for natural gas is hazardous to human health.
Some five years after the controversial combination of fracking and horizontal drilling in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and surrounding states got under way, a team of toxicologists from the University of Pennsylvania is leading a national effort to study the health effects of fracking.
The university’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicologywill investigate and analyze reports of nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties and other ills from people who live near natural gas drilling sites, compressor stations or wastewater pits.

The aim is to bring academic discipline to the unresolved national debate, which pits an industry that denies any link between fracking and environmental contamination against those who assert that fracking poisons air and water with natural and man-made chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.
“There is an enormous amount of rhetoric on both sides,” said Trevor M. Penning, head of the Penn toxicology center and the driving force behind the Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Hydrofracking Working Group. “We felt that because we are situated in Pennsylvania, we had a duty to get on top of what was known and what was not known.”
Determining whether fracking fluid is dangerous to health is challenging if the chemicals and their combinations are not fully disclosed, he said. The teams will also look at whether air quality is dangerously affected by the flaring of waste gases, and whether the industry’s extensive use of diesel fuel for trucks, drills and compressor stations is polluting the air near gas installations to unhealthy levels.
“We don’t know if the levels we are dealing with are hazardous,” he said. “We think it’s unsafe, but we don’t know it’s unsafe.”
Awaiting financing is a plan to use a Harvard University mapping tool to correlate natural gas installations with reports of sickness and a proposal to study the health outcomes of targeted populations by examining billing data from insurance companies.
Asked why academics are only now proposing a systematic study of fracking’s health effects about five years after the shale boom began in earnest in Pennsylvania, Dr. Penning replied, “Politics.”
With a strongly pro-industry administration led by Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, and a Republican-controlled legislature that has recently approved a gas-drilling law friendly to industry, state financing has not been available for research into whether drilling activities have negative health effects, Dr. Penning said.

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