Communities Contemplating Fracking Grapple with Long List of Concerns

Sep. 15, 2014

A new report has examined the host of potential health-related issues that communities in areas of the country suitable for natural gas extraction may face. The goal of the study was to determine how future research can best address communities’ health questions and inform their decision-making.

“We hope that this assessment will help create a framework that provides for ongoing community engagement in research on the potential health, environmental, and economic impacts of natural gas extraction,” said Katrina Korfmacher, Ph.D., director of the University of Rochester Environmental Health Sciences Center’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core and lead author of the study. “While this study is just a first step, it clearly indicates that the communities in areas that are considering hydraulic fracturing have many questions and environmental health research priorities – and that these priorities may differ from those of technical experts and government agencies.”

The expansion of natural gas development into new areas of the country through high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” has raised questions about the potential impacts on public health. Hydraulic fracturing consists of injecting large volumes of fluids into wells drilled deep into shale formations in order to release and extract natural gas. The fluids used in this process contain water and a host of chemicals and other materials. Drilling activities and associated growth have the potential to impact water and air quality and the quality of life in these communities.

While many communities welcome the potential economic growth that can accompany natural gas extraction, uncertainties about the health risks and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing have generated anxiety and – in some cases – conflict. Understanding the questions and research priorities of community leaders is a first step to addressing these concerns.

In 2012, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences funded an “information needs assessment” project to better understand these concerns and identify gaps in information. The assessment – which appears in the journal Reviews on Environmental Health – was led collaboratively by three environmental health science centers in New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. 

“Given the increasing amount of research focused on the health impacts of natural gas extraction, this assessment provides timely insights into community concerns and underscores the value of including impacted communities in identifying research questions and conducting research,” said Kathleen Gray, Ph.D., co-author and director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Health and Susceptibility.

Each state is at a different stage of natural gas extraction development. For the last seven years, New York State has suspended fracking pending an assessment of the potential health and environmental impacts. The regulations governing fracking in North Carolina are currently being debated, and eastern Ohio has seen a rapid expansion since natural gas extraction began in 2011. 

The authors conducted in-depth interviews with 48 community leaders in the three states. The objective was to obtain a broad and diverse spectrum of perspectives on health issues related to natural gas development. Interviewees included residents/homeowners, environmental advocates, members of local government, business leaders, educators, members of the media, and public health professionals. 

The authors found that the study participants raised similar sets of issues, regardless of their location. The five most common concerns included:

Water Quality and Quantity – This included the potential impact on ground and surface water and the ability of drilling companies and regulators to ensure that the fluids used in the fracking process do not contaminate water and impact health, agriculture, and the environment. An additional concern was the lack of sufficient information on the specific chemicals used by drilling companies and whether local water supplies would be depleted because of the high volume required by the fracking process.

Air Emissions – Concerns included impact on air quality by the evaporation of chemicals from holding ponds, emissions brought to the surface from the wells themselves, and emissions from the trucks and equipment that service the drilling sites. 

Quality of Life and Economic Issues – While some interviewees emphasized the economic benefits expected to accrue from natural gas development, others raised concerns including the potential impact of increased traffic, housing costs, and crime rates, as well as more general concerns about the potential “boom and bust” cycle of natural resource extraction, the loss of the “rural character” of their communities, and potential conflicts that will arise between those who are economic “winners” and “losers” in the wake of new development. 

Public Health and Health Care – Interviewees raised concerns about direct and indirect burdens on public health and health care systems, including the health care needs of industry workers, increased needs for and training of emergency responders, new or increased rates of disease related to environmental impacts such as air pollution, and demographic shifts created by the influx of drilling workers (including violence and alcohol abuse). On the other hand, some interviewees noted that economic development could lead to improved population health.

Vulnerable Populations – Concerns raised included the unequal health and economic impact on community residents depending upon their socioeconomic status (inability to benefit economically, disruption of traditional source of rural jobs, greater burden if they become sick, and less ability to avoid potential health risks).

The participants also indicated that it was difficult to find unbiased sources of information on the potential health impact of natural gas development. There was a clear demand for research that addressed their concerns and could help their communities grapple with decisions over how to protect public health in the face of environmental, economic, and social changes associated with natural gas extraction. 

“Our hope is that these findings will help guide research questions in the near future,” says Erin Haynes, Dr.P.H., associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and co-author on the project.

For more information about the study, click here.