Animals are suddenly dropping dead, becoming ill and sterile, and birthing deformed offspring in places where hydrofracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas is practiced reports a new study by Prof. Robert Oswald, molecular medicine, and his wife Michelle Bamberger, a private practice veterinarian. Their paper, titled “Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health,” appeared in the January issue of New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy and is one of the first peer-reviewed papers to discuss fracking’s potential negative health effects on both humans and other animals.
The team analyzed 24 cases of affected animals, including cows, goats, chickens, horses, deer, birds, cats, koi, llamas and humans across six states (Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas). Reproductive problems were most common, but other symptoms in both animals and humans included upper respiratory issues, burning of the eyes, nosebleeds, diarrhea, vomiting, rashes, headaches and neurological problems.
Poisoned animals portend danger not only because they may degrade the nation’s food supply but also because they serve as indicators of or, in the paper’s terms, “sentinels” for, human health. Since these animals have faster reproductive cycles and shorter generation times than humans, more can be learned and earlier about the health effects of gas drilling by studying them first, the paper argues.
“The first case that really caught my attention, and really caught most people’s attention, was that case in Louisiana where 17 cows died within an hour that is highly unusual for cattle being exposed to petroleum products,” Bamberger said. “Usually, they’ll die within one to three days, not an hour.”
By the paper’s logic, such animals are inadvertent “canaries in a coalmine.”
“What I suspect is that if I follow these cases long enough I am going to start to see reproductive effects in people too,” Bamberger said.
The paper compares the oil and gas industry’s approach to public health to the tobacco industry’s rejection of a link between smoking and cancer. Its abstract warns that “Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom sweeping the world will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”
“I think the example we give in the paper that is probably the most compelling of all is case number one, where a child was sick from the get-go over there and had all these vague sorts of symptoms and some of the animals around that neighborhood were dying and dying in ways that didn’t really make sense to the veterinarians or to the owners. It took [those animal deaths] for the doctor to do something that you would not normally do in a child that looked fairly healthy otherwise, and that is to look for signs of poisoning,” Bamberger said.
A toxicology test revealed that arsenic poisoning caused the child’s sickness, the paper reported. Since arsenic naturally occurs in shale, the paper said that well water contamination by surface spillage of fracking wastewater was a potential cause for the child’s illness.
To resolve these uncertainties, Bamberger and Oswald advocate careful and complete testing of the air and of all water sources for animals and humans before and after drilling starts. If certain contaminants appear in the second round a person can then test for them in the tissues and fluids of people and animals thereby providing a “clincher,” in Bamberger’s terms, that fracking is to blame.
It is difficult to implicate fracking with absolute certainty because in most states there is no law requiring hydrofracturing companies to disclose the proprietary chemicals they use, Oswald said. Nondisclosure agreements similarly prevent a thorough investigation of all possible data, he said.
“That’s where we hit the wall as researchers,” Oswald said, “and where others doing health research will hit the wall too.”
As New York State deliberates over its suspension on fracking, Oswald cautions: “Until they consider the health impacts I think there is absolutely no chance that fracking will be done safely.”