Fracking Can Cause Air Pollution, Too: The Ticker

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By Mary Duenwald

Complaints about the potential bad environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing have centered on water contamination. But fracking can also affect the air -- particularly during the period when the wells are being built.

Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health looked at air samples collected by the Department of Public Health in Garfield County, Colorado, every six days from 2008 to 2010. They found worrying levels of petroleum hydrocarbons -- including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. And it appears the levels were greatest not when actual fracking was being done but during the time that wells were being completed.

Those who live within half a mile of the wells stand the greatest risk of health effects, which can include everything from headaches, fatigue, dizziness, eye irritation and sore throat to difficulty breathing, impaired lung function, numbness in the arms and legs and even temporary paralysis. Cancer is a risk, too, because the residents' exposure to benzene.

The study underlines the need, as we at the View have noted, for research to closely measure the health effects of pollution from natural-gas drilling. More immediately, it points to the need for well drillers to manage their operations more carefully, to keep not only methane (the largest component of natural gas) but also health-damaging hydrocarbons from venting into the air.

Fracking is not simply here to stay --- it is expanding by leaps and bounds. Operations have grown almost 50 percent annually since 2006 and are expected to increase fourfold from 2009 to 2035, the researchers note. This could help to reduce America's reliance on coal and Mideast oil, as well as lower the price of power in the U.S.

Energy companies, of course, have the most to gain from the fracking boom. They should secure their own bright future by ensuring that their operations are safe. State regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should see that they do.

(Mary Duenwald is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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-0- Mar/19/2012 19:09 GMT