Healthy Homes: Re-Framing Fracking Impacts
An Ohio family took joy in raising their kids and cattle at their farmhouse, built in 1853 with crooked walls and no indoor bathrooms. When they leased land to fracking activity, however, the “beep, beep, beep” of heavy truck traffic kept them up all night, and a cow died after drinking a strange fluid flowing on the land during the cold of winter. They dedicated their retirement savings to moving and building a new home, only to soon after receive a compressor station as their neighbor – close enough to hear the engines at all hours and loud enough to make them dread even walking out to their mailbox.
During the upswing of a boom-and-bust cycle of the gas industry in Greene County, the influx of outside workers and the high demand on rental housing resulted in one particular family being unable to secure an apartment. Without adequate housing, their children were temporarily taken from their custody.
In Huntingdon, a young woman resisted a pipeline being forced through her property by stationing herself in a tree, while workers with chainsaws felled those around her. Eminent domain enabled the gas company to claim this privately-owned land under a weak guise of “public good.”
These unsettling but true stories hint at the countless ways fracking plays out in individual households. A healthy home environment – with clean air, potable drinking water, and safety from outside elements – is essential to human life and functioning. Yet, the industrial processes involved in unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), often summed up with the term “fracking,” may interfere with or even take away the ability to maintain a healthy home.
This article aims to put these household impacts, and the right to a healthy home, at the center of the fracking debate.
Framing the issue
The way we understand just about anything depends on our frame of reference. A frame, like the frame around a picture, brings its contents into focus. At the same time, it excludes the information outside its borders. A frame declares that what’s inside is what matters. When it comes to the human effects of fracking, various conflicting frames exist, each dictating their own picture of what fracking actually does and means.
The frame we use to look at the fracking debate is so important, because it dictates how we talk about and think about the problem. Likewise, if we can identify the frame others are using when they talk about fracking, we can see more clearly what they have prioritized and what they are leaving out of the conversation.
Two researchers who conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups in five Pennsylvania counties in 2014 and 2015 argue for the need for a new frame.1 Some of the common ways of talking about fracking not only favor shale gas development for reasons like those included in the frame on the left above, they also work against those trying to make a stand against the negative effects fracking. These researchers suggest that, rather than arguing within the existing, dominant frames, activists should consider proactively “reframing the debate around other core values.” The right to a healthy home is a widely-shared value. I propose we adopt a frame that puts that right at the center of the picture.
What is a “healthy home”?
The term healthy home isn’t new. The federal agencies Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both use this phrase in defining the importance of a home environment free from hazards and contaminants, like lead and radon. Simply put, a healthy home is one that supports health.
We sit poised at a unique moment to take on the task of reframing fracking. While new drilling in some places appears to be on the decline, countless large-scale petrochemical projects, like a growing crop of plastic-producing ethane crackers in the northeast US, are ramping up. These facilities will demand massive supplies of natural gas and byproducts, perpetuating and likely increasing drilling.
The renewed demand on wells and their associated infrastructure increase the burden on those households in its wake, living amid stimulated wells, near odorous compressor stations, next to pipelines with pig launchers spewing emissions.
Continued demand on natural gas – for energy or cheap plastics – also requires less-discussed but equally-invasive infrastructure, such as the massive underground gas storage underlying communities in growing numbers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Such infrastructure exposes residents to the possibility of leaks, like the one that forced the evacuation of thousands of families in Porter Ranch, California. It burdens other communities with the disposal of toxic waste fluids, including underground injection and the associated earthquakes, like the hundreds pockmarking Ohio and now encroaching on Pennsylvania. Keeping the fracking going means communities, like some dairy farming regions in Wisconsin, continue to see the environmental and quality-of-life impacts of frac sand mining.
Engagement is urgent and timely,2 and the entire country has a role to play. This moment in our energy history is a chance for all of us – those affected by, in favor of, concerned about, eager to welcome, or otherwise learning about UOGD – to get clear on our frame of understanding fracking.
Why a “Healthy Homes” Frame?
Proponents of frames that endorse fracking often live at a considerable distance from the processes involved,3 buffering them and their families from its impacts. According to researchers4 who listened to the testimonies of residents at a community hearing, the distance they lived from the industrial activities shows up in how they talk about fracking. Those in favor tend to use a depersonalized, “birds-eye view” in describing the impacts. People for whom the negative impacts are or will be a part of their lives rely on more descriptive, specific, and place-based language.
Similarly, a frame that focuses on household impacts emphasizes the on-the-ground, lived experience of living near fracking infrastructure. This frame approaches the debate on fracking by continually asking, what is this like for the people who live with the process? What are the impacts to their home environment? Such a frame does not ignore large-scale issues of jobs and energy supply, but grounds these bigger questions with the real and urgent consequences to the people who are suffering.
Despite rulings that define UOGD as an industrial process, drilling companies locate all manner of infrastructure – wells, pipelines, compressor stations, among others – in areas formerly residential or agricultural. Rules dictating distances from UOGD facilities to structures like houses vary by municipality and state. Yet, these new and often imposing facilities repeatedly occupy the immediate view of homes, or are within close proximity that defy medical and safety warnings.
Video: Glaring light of burning flares and noises both droning and sudden, along with major truck traffic and other changes to the immediate landscape around the household, produce high levels of stress, leading to its own health problems, creating an environment where water may become unsafe to drink and breathing the air becomes a hazard.
The Oil & Gas Threat Map (by Earthworks and FracTracker) shows the populations within a half-mile “threat radius” of infrastructure that includes fracking – close enough for residents to be exposed to contaminated air emissions, and possibly smell disturbing odors, hear loud sounds and feel vibrations, and see bright lights and the fire of emergency flares. As confirmed by the EPA, in some cases, UOGD results in contamination of drinking water, as well.
Researchers at The Environmental Health Project (EHP) offer individual health assessments to residents living in the shadow of fracking operations. In a physician’s thorough review of over 61 assessments, they identified the following symptoms to be temporally related to gas activity:
Table 1. Symptoms temporally related to UOGD
|UPPER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS||39||64%||Nose or throat irritation||25||41%|
|Sinus pain or infections||17||28%|
|CONSTITUTIONAL SYMPTOMS||33||54%||Sleep disruption||26||43%|
|Weak or Drowsy||9||15%|
|PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS||32||52%||Stress or anxiety||23||38%|
|Irritable or moody||12||20%|
|LOWER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS||30||49%||Cough||21||34%|
|Shortness of breath||19||31%|
|EYE SYMPTOMS||23||38%||Itchy eyes||11||18%|
|Painful or dry||10||16%|
|Lesions or blisters||6||10%|
|Other cardiac symptoms||6||10%|
|HEARING CHANGES OR TINNITUS||10||16%||Hearing loss||3||5%|
|Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)||10||16%|
|n = Number of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed|
|% = Percentage of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed|
|Table adapted from EHP – Click to download Excel spreadsheet|
Mental and emotional stress can exacerbate and create physical health symptoms. For households close to fracking, the fear of a disaster, like a well pad fire, or concern for the long term health effects of exposures through air and water can create serious stress. These developments change communities, sometimes in divisive, negative ways, potentially adding to the stress.
Fracking, a disruptive, landscape-altering process can also produce what’s called solastalgia, whereby negatively-perceived changes to the land alter a person’s sense of belonging. In the case of fracking in residential areas, people may lose not only their relationship to the land, but their homes as they once knew them.5 Solastalgia, considered by some researchers to be a new psycho-social condition, is “the lived experience of the physical desolation of home.”6
When Home is Unsafe, Where to Get Help
EHP offers a new resource for protecting your health at a household level, called: “Protecting Your Health from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development.” We created this free informational resource in collaboration with residents and health care providers in four different shale gas counties.
The final product is the direct result of input and knowledge from 15 focus groups and project meetings in these affected communities with over 100 participants, including residents and healthcare providers. EHP has packed this resource with practical steps for households amid shale gas development to limit their exposure to air and water contamination that may be associated with fracking.
For follow-up questions, or for free personalized health services for those experiencing fracking-related exposures, you can contact EHP directly at 724-260-5504 or by email at email@example.com.
Re-Centering Home in the Fracking Debate
Putting affected households at the center of the fracking debate better reflects the experiences of people on the front lines. This powerful frame could help counter the power of those who speak positively about fracking, but lack direct experience of the process.
For those at the frontlines of fracking, the intent is that these resources and tools will help you protect your health and your homes.
For those not yet directly affected by fracking, you can lend a hand. Show support for health protective measures by signing up at EHP for updates on events, education, and opportunities to make your voice heard. And, whenever and wherever you can weigh in on the debate, put a frame around fracking that puts impacted households at the center.
- Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
- Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments?, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
- Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
- Mando, J. (2016). Constructing the vicarious experience of proximity in a Marcellus Shale public hearing. Environmental Communication, 10(3), 352-364.
- Resick, L. K. (2016). Gender, protest, and the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development. In Y. Beebeejaum (Ed.), The participatory city (pp. 167-175). Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmgH.
- Albrecht et al (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change, Australasian Psychiatry . Vol 15 Supplement.
By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for the SW-PA Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance
Feature photograph: A compressor station sits above a beautiful farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Leann Leiter
Want to learn more, and share your ideas on re-framing fracking? Join me for a public presentation this Thursday, July 13, 7-8 PM in Washington, PA!
Buffalo Township Municipal Building
400 Buffalo Center Lane, Washington, PA 15301
Co-hosted by the Buffalo Creek Watershed Association. Light snacks provided.
See flier for details! http://environmentalhealthproject.org/dl/74