Prove your humanity

Unexplained nosebleeds, rashes and migraines are just some of the health problems reported by Southwestern Pennsylvania residents who live near fracking activity. Telling the story of some of these people’s experiences of physical and mental strain is just one piece of a two-year investigation by Kristina Marusic, a reporter for Environmental Health News. 

The four-part series also relies on data. In the summer of 2019 urine samples were taken from the members of five non-smoking families in Washington County, which has the most fracked wells in the state, and Westmoreland County. Air samples from personal air monitors worn by study participants, and water samples from the families’ homes, were also collected. 

Scientists at the University of Missouri analyzed the samples for 40 chemicals most commonly used in the fracking industry.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Marusic about the investigation’s findings and implications.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kristina Marusic

Kristina Marusic. Photo: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News

Kara Holsopple: Why did you undertake this investigation?

Kristina Marusic: I had been reporting on fracking in western Pennsylvania and at the national level for three or four years, and I would talk to a lot of researchers who did work related to fracking and health, but I noticed that there wasn’t really anyone doing biomonitoring work related to fracking — trying to figure out whether chemicals that are emitted during the fracking process are making their way inside of people’s bodies. 

I got curious about why that was, and I started doing some digging. Environmental Health News’ executive director, Douglas Fischer, was a journalist in a previous life, and about 15 years ago, he did an investigation for a Bay Area newspaper where he did a biomonitoring study to look at flame retardants in people’s bodies. 

That study was really sort of groundbreaking and made a lot of difference. California eventually heavily restricted the use of that kind of flame retardant chemical, linked to a lot of negative health effects. So he wondered if it would be possible to do something similar to look at fracking. 

Holsopple: What were the most compelling findings?

Marusic: The most compelling findings were definitely in the urine samples. We did find evidence of some harmful chemicals in the air samples we took and in the water samples, but we didn’t find anything that was off the charts compared to available regulatory thresholds. 

All 20 people in the study exceeded not only the average, but also the 95th percentile, which is the level that 95 percent of Americans fall below…a biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene.

I should add here that we looked for 40 chemicals, and regulations for how much of those chemicals should be in the air or water are few and far between. So we didn’t find anything that clearly broke the law or would call for intervention from a government regulator in the air or the water. 

But when we looked at the urine samples, we found some really surprising things. We took three urine samples for each person in the study. We did that just to make sure that we didn’t just catch someone on a weird day, and just to try and have a better sense of what their exposures looked like throughout the summer when we did this testing. 

We collected all of the urine samples in the study for about a nine week period. We had the lab look for the chemicals on that list — things like benzene, toluene, and other volatile organic chemicals. We also looked at biomarkers or metabolites for those chemicals. That is the end product that forms after the body has processed something like benzene or toluene. 

The CDC has published data on the levels of some of these same biomarkers in the average American through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES for short. Comparing our levels against those, we found that families in southwestern Pennsylvania had significantly higher than average levels of a lot of these compounds. 

For example, all 20 people in the study exceeded not only the average, but also the 95th percentile, which is the level that 95 percent of Americans fall below, for mandelic acid, which is a biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene.

A urine sample from July 24th, 2019, showed a level of hippuric acid, which is a biomarker that forms when the body is exposed to toluene. That was 91 times as high as the U.S. median, and nearly five times as high as the US 95th percentile, which again is the level that 95 percent of Americans fall below. 

Toluene is linked to skin, eye and respiratory irritation, drowsiness and dizziness. With chronic exposure, it can have more serious effects like infertility or damage to the nervous system, liver and kidneys. And that was a day when this little boy, who was nine years old at the time, just hung out at his house.

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EHN.org spent two years investigating the personal “body burden” imposed on families by nearby fracking activities.

Holsopple: Could the chemicals in the urine samples come from other exposures besides fracking activity or the chemicals in the air and water samples that you took? 

Marusic: They could, yeah. One of the challenges about doing biomonitoring research related to fracking is that a lot of these chemicals have other uses in addition to just being used during fracking. 

Benzene, for example, is found in cigarette smoke. It’s found in exhaust from cars. A lot of these other VOCs can off gas even from furniture or carpeting or might be found in paints or varnishes. We can’t say with certainty that the presence of these chemicals in someone’s air or their water or their body came from fracking. 

We were pretty shocked at some of these really high levels of these biomarkers in kids.

But that’s part of the reason we compared what we saw in the folks we looked at to the national averages, because we expect everyone to have a certain amount of these compounds in their body since we’re all exposed to car exhaust or secondhand smoke or household stuff that emits these chemicals. 

We also kept really careful records of what everyone did in the 24 hours leading up to when we collected a urine sample, and when we did their air monitoring. There are a few places where I know that someone drove in their car during that period, or I know that someone ripped up vinyl flooring, and I mentioned that in the reporting to say this could have contributed to these exposures. 

Holsopple: Some of the families you tested live closer to fracking activity than others. What did the similarities and differences in their exposures tell you?

Marusic: We expected to see a bigger difference in their exposures than we actually did. We were surprised that some of the highest levels of exposure we saw came from the families that actually live a little further away from fracking. 

But when we dug a little deeper, we found that those families lived near a lot of conventional oil and gas wells, which tend to have similar emissions, although there’s been a lot less research done about that than there has been on unconventional wells. 

Because one county is more rural, the families further away from fracking are in a slightly more urban area. They have more exposure to things like traffic and industrial pollution that could be contributing to those exposures. 

Kara Holsopple: So the folks who are living closest to fracking, the results of their tests were more in line with what you expected?

Marusic: I think so. There’s not a lot of other research like this out there. So we didn’t exactly know what we would find. I don’t think we had clear expectations. We were pretty shocked at some of these really high levels of these biomarkers in kids and a lot of those most kind of shocking outliers we saw like that one that I mentioned where a little boy was 91 times as high as the average — those were in the families that live slightly closer to fracking. 

But again, it was only a difference of about two miles. There have been a number of studies recently that try to track how far air emissions from fracking wells and compressor stations and infrastructure travel, and certainly the people who are most heavily impacted are those who live closest to the highest number of wells. But it’s looking more and more like it’s a larger region and a larger number of people who are impacted by those emissions than we used to think. 

Holsopple: This series of stories is as much about the experiences and the questions that your participants have had as it is about the data you collected. Can you tell me about, you know, one of the families that you wrote about and what struck you most about their situation? 

Marusic: One of the families in the study is a single father with a young son. The dad’s name is Bryan and his son’s name is Ryan. And Ryan was nine years old at the time that we did this testing. Their story was especially striking because they had a well drilled on their land about 400 feet from their home back in 2011 or 2012.

I know they signed their lease in 2010, kind of at the height of the fracking boom. He [Bryan] signed that lease and thought he was going to become a millionaire. Instead they just had a problem after problem with the well. 

He caught workers illegally pumping water out of a pit into the woods behind his property. He says that it was toxic wastewater. The company says it was just accumulated storm water. His well water did become undrinkable. He had it tested and his well water was not safe to drink.

He was told by the Department of Environmental Protection and the fracking company that they should switch to bottled water to be safe. Ryan, who was just two years old when the wells went in, developed this series of ongoing strange health symptoms. He’s had rashes and he’s had pretty severe gastrointestinal problems. His asthma has become worse.

They’re drinking bottled water, but they still have to bathe in their well water, and Ryan has come out of the shower, multiple times, with sores on his body, presumably from bathing in this contaminated water. 

Their story was just heartbreaking. This last year that well was actually plugged, but Bryan and Ryan are still surrounded by dozens of other wells within five miles of their house, so he is still pretty worried about their exposures.

Holsopple: As you say, in the series, this is a small pilot study. It’s not peer reviewed, and you’re not drawing any sweeping scientific conclusions. But what do you hope will be the impact of the study and what’s next?

Marusic: I hope that this study will encourage others to do more biomonitoring related to fracking. The technology is evolving, and has evolved in the last five years, in a way that makes this more possible and more accessible.

We’re a tiny nonprofit and we spent $60,000 testing five families, so I really hope that  an organization with additional resources, or even the oil and gas industry, if they’re interested in disproving what our small study found, would undertake something similar on a much larger scale to look at larger groups of people who are living near fracking, even across different states. A lot of times the purpose of a pilot study is to say, ‘Hey, I think there might be something here. We should really look into this further.’ 

I hope that the families we tested are able to feel empowered by the results. I think it was certainly scary for them, and a little unnerving learning that their kids, especially, have these chemical exposures. 

But they also expressed that they’ve been trying to talk to policymakers and regulators for years, and say that they’re concerned about these things, and now they feel like they have something to show them that says this is real, this is impacting us and we have proof. 

I hope that they’re able to use the study to better advocate for themselves, and advocate for their communities, and also be able to talk to their doctors, and get advice about how to avoid these exposures and mitigate the impact.

Environmental Health News, and the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which helped EHN identify study participants, receive funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also supports The Allegheny Front.

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