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Fracking ‘Health Challenges’ to Be Examined by U.S. Advisers

Fracking Water
The demand for underground storage has increased with the proliferation of shale gas drilling, a technique that produces millions of gallons of wastewater per well. Photo: Jason Janik/Bloomberg

The Institute of Medicine will examine whether the process of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from rock “poses potential health challenges,” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said.

Health concerns related to fracking, in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water are forced underground to break up rock and free gas, include the potential for water contamination and air pollution, Christopher Portier, director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, said at a workshop in Washington today.

Fracking has enabled energy companies to access fuel trapped in previously impenetrable shale rock, reversing a decline in U.S. gas production. Environmentalists have claimed the chemicals used contribute to water contamination and airborne toxins.

“As public health officials, we are committed to ensuring that development happens responsibly,” Portier said in introductory remarks. Portier, who also directs the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said that agency has received complaints from people in communities with gas wells.

“They have mentioned health effects like nausea, respiratory issues and irritating odors,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency finished regulations this month on capturing air pollution at wells. The rules will be phased-in so that companies have until 2015 to fully comply.

Wastewater Recycling

David Cole, regional discipline leader for production technology/chemistry at Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s Shell Upstream Americas, attended the workshop and said his company recycles all of the wastewater produced at most of its wells and flares “really a small amount” of the gas a well produces.

“We understand that just because it’s a common chemical doesn’t mean you want it in your drinking water,” Cole said of the fracking fluids. He said Shell uses small amounts of the fluid and tries to isolate the well from drinking water supplies.

One aim of the Institute of Medicine workshop is to discuss whether studies called “health impact assessments” can help communities plan for gas wells and mitigate public health problems. A “comprehensive” study can cost as much as $300,000 and take a year of work, said Aaron Wernham, project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Health Impact Project.

The Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, advises the U.S. government on health topics. The institute’s examination of fracking isn’t a formal study and won’t result in a report or recommendations to the government.

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