Over the last 4 years, the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility have compiled a list of studies and reports which outline what they call “the risks and harms of fracking” to public health. The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking is as comprehensive as it gets. The report includes peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals; investigative reports by journalists; and reports from, or commissioned by, government agencies. There are no reports from advocacy organizations “unless they provide otherwise inaccessible data.” Kara Holsopple talked with one of the compendium’s editors, Larysa Dyrszka, MD, who has been involved in the production of all five editions.
Kara Holsopple: This is the fifth edition since July 2014. What’s notable that’s new? How has it changed?
Larysa Dyrszka: We have now almost 1,300 references that we have compiled. Our first one was about five years ago, and it was a small pamphlet at that point. We also have groupings of issues that we have started expanding that include infrastructure such as pipelines and compressor stations because we found that those are also contributing significantly to health impacts.
KH: Are there newer studies or reports that particularly concern you?
LD: I’m a retired pediatrician so I’ve always reflected on what could impact children in particular because they’re such a vulnerable population. I’ve been a co-author on a couple of peer-reviewed papers [including] one published in October of 2017 on the neurological impacts on children of several components that are emitted during fracking — particulate matter, ozone, benzene. They are significant. They’re real and we feel that not enough attention has been paid to the health issues from the very beginning. We detailed how these particular pollutants can impact children’s development.
KH: Could you say a little bit more about those impacts?
LD: Particulate matter, for example, has been shown to be both a carcinogen in the long term. It takes a little bit longer time to determine the impacts of any carcinogens. So we were not focusing so much on the carcinogenicity, but the very, very small particles that are emitted — less than 2.5 microns. This ultra-fine particulate matter is emitted whenever there is any combustion.
We know in particular that when there is flaring from compressor stations, particulate matter is admitted [along with] very ultra fine particles. Those are taken into the lungs with the respiratory cycle and of course children breathe faster than adults. Children are closer to the ground where a lot more of the pollutants settle so they’re exposed a lot more. The ultra fine particles can potentially be transported into the bloodstream and could cause neurological problems that way.
KH: In the compendium, there is a list of takeaways. One of them is that fracking is a threat to public health and that no regulations can make it safe. You really don’t think that more or different regulations would make fracking safer for the public? How did you come to that conclusion?
LD: I agree wholeheartedly with that conclusion. We have seen in other places where there have been regulations implemented, they have not protected health. Even in Pennsylvania, there are some regulations in place. But you have a political environment where you can’t impose or then enforce.
One of the problems is that we don’t know all of the problems that can occur still. We know enough to know that there are dangers and that there are risks to public health. If you read the compendium on the risks to infants, the babies who were born to mothers close to gas wells have more low birth weight problems and the complications thereof.
There are regulations in place where you can’t put a well closer than a few hundred feet from a school or from a home, but obviously these are not working. And so we feel that it’s best to follow the precautionary principle which says don’t do harm. If you are alerted to the dangers, and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be for a large part of the population, you can’t take those risks, especially with our children. A moratorium is a logical, middle of the road way to start.
KH: Do you feel a sense of urgency with this work?
LD: Yes, and especially in this [political] environment. We wish that the industry didn’t have such a free hand in Pennsylvania. We all have families and children and grandchildren, and we’re very concerned about the future for them. We do have a short time frame to turn this around so that urgency is there to make people aware.
Photo (top): A drilling rig is set up near a barn in Springville, Pa., to tap gas from the Marcellus Shale gas field. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP