Prove your humanity

The Environmental Health Project, an advocacy group based in southwestern Pennsylvania, held a conference this week highlighting recent research on fracking and public health. 

“Shale gas development has elevated the risk of serious health impacts for individuals living in frontline communities,” said EHP’s Executive Director Alison Steele. “We need meaningful policy solutions to address these heightened risks.” 

Topics included environmental economics, environmental justice, endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in shale gas drilling, and how they can impact health. 

Study on pregnant women living near fracking wells

Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, a researcher at the University of Toronto, discussed the work she and her colleagues have been doing, focused on how living near fracking sites affects pregnant women and birth outcomes. They identified 85 pregnant women living in northeastern British Columbia, an area dense with unconventional natural gas wells. 

Their study, published in January, accounted for smoking, and other indoor air exposures, like the use of nail polish, and an attached garage. They found that levels of compounds associated with fracking, like benzene and toluene, were higher in these women’s homes when compared with the general Canadian population.

“Our results suggest higher exposure to certain VOCs [Volatile Organic Compounds] in pregnant women living in an area of intense unconventional natural gas exploitation compared with the general Canadian population,” the study concluded, “and that well density/proximity is associated with increased exposure to certain VOCs.”

It’s concerning for unborn babies, “because those contaminants are known to pass through the placenta,” Caron-Beaudoin said, explaining why they focused on this population. “It’s really important to specifically work with pregnant women from a risk assessment perspective. They’re one of the most vulnerable groups of the population.” 

Her research group is now looking at how these contaminants could make their way into people’s bodies. 

Closer to home, an economic assessment 

Nicholas Muller, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, presented the 2019 analysis he and his colleagues published in the journal Nature Sustainability. In it, they compare labor benefits from fracking, with the costs associated with air quality, and climate change impacts, in the Appalachian region, including parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, from 2004 to 2016.

They found a benefit from $21 billion to the labor market, but that did not outweigh the environmental and health price paid by the region. 

“Looking at these three impact categories, we see pretty clear evidence that the public health and environmental costs outweigh the local employment effects,” Muller said. 

The paper recommends a new severance tax on natural gas producers in Pennsylvania, to build those public health costs into the price of producing gas.

The  Environmental Health Project is funded by The Heinz Endowments, which also supports The Allegheny Front.

Study: Natural Gas in the Region Has Brought Economic Benefits, But also Premature Deaths