Shale Gas Drilling and the Food Shed: Head of Environmental Health at CDC Expresses Concern

January 8, 2012

by Ken Jaffe


Below is the full text of last week’s email from Dr. Christopher Portier, head of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).  I believe it’s the first publication of the full text, which I obtained through the CDC press office.  The  story was covered on 1/5/12 by Kevin Begos of the APquoting excerpts of the email.

As dry as the document is, in several ways it represents a major change in mainstream scientific thinking about public health risks of gas drilling.

1.    Dr. Portier essentially states that he cannot say that hydrofracking is safe. This is said in a veiled way, by stating that he cannot confirm that it poses a risk to public health, but that he has “data of concern”.  If you think about it for a moment, saying he cannot confirm that drilling is unsafe is he same as saying he cannot confirm that it’s safe. (Two mutually exclusive options—safe/unsafe. Uncertainty about whether one option being true is really uncertainty about whether either option is true.)  So in stating that he cannot confirm that drilling is unsafe he is also stating that he cannot confirm that fracking does not poses a risk to public health–but that he had data of concern.  It’s just a shade less in-your-face in our current regulatory world, where it’s hard for someone whose job is protecting public health to state outright, yet,  that the gas industry poses a risk to public health. Given the ATSDR reputation for not making waves, this statement is pretty bold.


2.    Dr. Portier makes it clear that he has evidence (“data of concern”) that makes him worried.  If anyone has worrysome data it’s him. The ATSDR has been in the trenches with the EPA in Pavillion, Wyoming where they have documented drinking water aquifer contamination from hydrofracking, including with benzene.


3.    This is the first statement by a federal health official raising concern about risks to the food supply from hydrofracking. Dr. Portier recommends that:
 

”-Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals. ……… livestock on farmed lands consuming potentially impacted surface waters; and recreational fish from potentially impacted surface waters.“


Some of the wells in Pavillion were used for livestock. This was groundwater.  But the recognition of surface water risks to livestock and the food chain is meaningful new statement by a federal health official. Surface spills are frequent, substantial, and mostly unreported, and go downhill to contaminate steams and ponds used by livestock.  And given the livestock deaths in Louisiana and PA and elsewhere, proven to be caused by ingestion of frack chemicals, other strongly associated, it makes sense to be concerned about toxic residue in animal based foods.

The below email tells us that the scientific ground on which regulators must stand has shifted.  No longer can we ask opponents of fracking “prove that it’s not safe”. Given our current knowledge we now must say to the proponents, that before fracking “we need to do real research to find out if it is safe”.  That research does not yet exist.
In New York, this means that the SGEIS should go into a drawer, or the trash, until the research on health impacts recommended by Dr. Portier is completed.

1/6/12 Email from Health Communications Specialist, NCEH/ATSDR:

Here is the statement from Dr. Christopher Portier, ATSDR Director. Hope it is helpful:


We do not have enough information to say with certainty whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health. Although national data are limited on impacts to health, site-by-site work is turning up data of concern. One area of concern is that hydraulic fracturing fluids contain potentially hazardous chemical classes (petroleum distillates, volatile organic compounds, glycol ethers, etc.) and the recovered fluids may also contain radionuclides and salts.


More research is needed for us to understand public health impacts from natural gas drilling and new gas drilling technologies. Some research recommendations include:


-We recommend that chemicals related to or mobilized by natural gas activities be monitored. These chemicals may be different in different parts of the country or different geological formations.


-Pre- and post- testing of private drinking water wells is needed along with testing during the entire lifecycle of natural gas activities at each site.


-Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals. In addition to groundwater, exposure pathways could include the air at well sites, impoundment sites, and compressor stations both locally and regionally; livestock on farmed lands consuming potentially impacted surface waters; and recreational fish from potentially impacted surface waters.


One research challenge in looking at health effects is that we do not have a standard case definition for individuals exposed to natural gas activities. This poses an extremely complex problem for epidemiology researchers, given the range of possible environmental exposures that are currently not well defined and that may be intermittent and variable across the lifecycle of natural gas activities at any one location and in different parts of the country.


Our priority as an agency is protecting people from chemical exposures. In addition to our work at sites around the country, ATSDR is working with federal partners to advance our knowledge on potential health effects of natural gas drilling. At this point, we don’t know what we will find. We want to make sure that we understand any health risks that may be present. We are consulting on EPA’s National Hydraulic Fracturing Study. We are looking for opportunities to bring scientists together to set a research agenda to address health concerns from natural gas drilling.

 

This article first appeared on Ken Jaffe's blog on January 8th at  www.slopefarms.com/blog