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Environmental Factor, June 2012

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Shale gas workshop explores needed research on fracking

By Cindy Loose

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies logo
Aubrey Miller, M.D.

Miller is the lead for the NIEHS and NTP response to fracking. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Balbus, M.D.

Balbus represented NIEHS at the IOM workshop. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As the world struggles to meet its growing need for energy by exploring new fuel sources and extraction methods, NIEHS wants important public health questions asked and answered.

For example, chemicals are being pumped deep into the earth to release natural gas in thousands of wells using the new technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking. Does hydrofracking also mobilize naturally occurring hazardous compounds?

NIEHS has taken a lead role in convening stakeholders, including the scientific and regulatory communities and industry, to discuss and help address these questions. Most recently, the NIEHS-sponsored Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine hosted a workshop April 30-May 1 in Washington, D.C., that brought together scientists, industry, and government.

The attendees explored what potential environmental threats, both above and below ground, may be posed by hydrofracking. An important part of the discussion was the consideration of who will be responsible for studying the various aspects of the complex, but straightforward, question, “What are the short- and long-term impacts of hydrofracking on human health?”

Balancing risks and benefits of a new energy source

The nation’s need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and desire to decrease dependence on foreign energy, have helped spur development of gas wells using new technology that extracts methane, at depths of up to 7,000 feet, from natural shale deposits. At the workshop, a Shell representative explained the process by which directional drilling is combined with millions of gallons of water, plus various additives, to release the gas. Substances used in the process include acids, gelling agents, biocides, anti-corrosives, and friction reducers. Enormous quantities of sand are also needed to keep fracture channels open.

As IOM reported after the workshop, “Public health was not brought into discussions about shale gas extraction at earlier stages; in consequence, the health system finds itself lacking critical information about environmental health impacts.”

“At this stage, the federal agencies are still developing strategies for examining the myriad of issues involved,” said NIEHS Senior Advisor John Balbus, M.D. “Efforts like the recent workshop inform those discussions.”

Balbus represented NIEHS on a workshop panel that also included senior leadership from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Panel members addressed, among other issues, what they saw as their agencies’ roles for action; how local, state, and federal institutions should coordinate efforts; and what other partners should be engaged.

“The workshop and other engagements by NIEHS are critical in playing a catalytic role in informing the agenda not only for NIEHS, but for all stakeholders,” said NIEHS Senior Medical Advisor Aubrey Miller, M.D., who is coordinating the NIEHS response to hydrofracking.

NIEHS and NTP initiatives

NIEHS recently issued a request for proposals from the research community that, for the first time, includes language specific to hydrofracking among other topics. “Interest in the health issues around hydrofracking has been picking up intensity both among scientists and the general public,” said Miller.

Part of the NIEHS effort involves activating and coordinating the work of its Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers around the nation. Research interests expressed by the centers include gathering base line data in communities, studying components of fracking chemicals, and epidemiological studies that investigate health trends where the number of these wells is growing exponentially.

The centers have recommended developing a map to show locations of both wells and experts, and they plan to strengthen partnerships with the CDC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and professional groups.

Additionally, NTP has begun examining the needed research about toxicological issues. Among questions identified as needing further investigation were “Are known hazardous compounds, at levels of concern, contaminating groundwater and ambient air?” and “What is the composition and environmental fate of flowback water?”

Of particular interest is understanding the toxic effects of both intense short-term and chronic low-level exposures of hydrogen sulfide (H2S). Although high levels of H2S exposure are known to cause severe neurologic and respiratory symptoms, loss of consciousness, and even death, much less is known about chronic low-level exposures. NTP has also identified a need for investigation into what additional chemicals should be monitored in the air in communities near hydrofracking operations.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer with the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

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