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Right to a healthy home - Photo credit: Leann Leiter

The Right to a Healthy Home

Reframing Fracking in Our Communities

Imagine that tonight you head home to cook dinner. But, standing at your kitchen sink, you find that your tap water is suddenly running a funny color or gives off a bad smell. So instead of cooking, you order a pizza and decide to work outside in your garden. Just as you’re getting your hands dirty, however, you hear the roar of the compressor station that you see from your yard as its “blows off” some substance. Going back inside, and closing your windows to keep out the foul air, you think of the tap water and decide a shower is out of the question. Imagine that you resign yourself to just going to bed early – only to be kept awake by the bright and unnatural glow of gas being flared at the nearby wellhead.

Scenarios just like these can and do happen when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, encroaches upon residential areas.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we described how the many aspects of fracking can destroy a healthy home environment and argued for a frame that focuses on those impacts. A frame is a way of contextualizing, communicating about, and understanding an issue.

This article brings in the idea of rights, and lists several declared rights that fracking violates. Returning to the topic of framing, we then challenge the fracking-friendly frame, by calling into question three common ways of talking about fracking that ignore the rights of those impacted.

In short, the push to support fracking often ignores the rights of people living near it.

Healthy Homes for Human Flourishing

First, let’s explore why a having healthy home matters.

Everyone has a basic need for a safe, healthy place to live. The World Health Organization identifies the social determinants of health (SDH) as the “conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” Applied to healthy homes, these SDH include access to clean air and safe drinking water, and protection from intrusion and disaster. Health is not merely the absence of disease. Health can mean the ability to function, to live one’s life,[1] to flourish.

Human flourishing demands a healthy home environment. Picture again the scenario at the beginning of this article. Would you be able to care for yourself and your family members, to meet your basic needs, or to lead a satisfying life if your home didn’t seem like a safe place to live?

Using Rights to Make the Case

Many people who live near drilling often ask themselves that very question. These include people like Pam Judy, with a compressor station less than 800 feet from her house, who questions the long term effects of breathing in the 16 chemicals detected in air test conducted by the PA Department of Environmental Protection.

Greene County, PA resident Pam Judy and the compressor station near her home in Gas Rush Stories, part 5: A Neighbor from Kirsi Jansa on Vimeo.

Simply reading or watching the stories of those directly impacted by gas development makes a moving argument for the right to a healthy home environment – and that argument also has a lot of backing. Researchers[2] have made a powerful case that fracking can and has violated human rights, by impacting the health for those downwind or downstream and by denying civil liberties to those pushed aside or silenced during the debate. These same researchers showed specifically that fracking has violated the rights to privacy, family, home, and protection of property.

Various governments and non-governmental organizations around the world have likewise called out human rights violations due to fracking. Other human rights declarations are relevant here, too. Fracking’s impacts are incompatible with the rights to health and to housing. Here’s a sampling:

side-by-side-rights-table

This sampling of precedents includes statements and declarations by the United Nations and the Organization of American States. It shows that when it comes to human rights and fracking, a strong case has already been made by respected international organizations.

Challenging the fracking-friendly frame

A rights-based perspective, informed by precedents like those above, gives us a strong platform from which to examine and counter arguments that support or promote fracking. We can call those pro-fracking arguments a “fracking-friendly” frame.

A fracking-friendly frame denies or minimizes the human impacts. We can hear elements of the fracking-friendly frame underlying industry promises and political talking points, and witness how they leach into common dialogue between citizens.

Element #1: “Economic impacts”- but only the positives

An “economic impacts ” emphasis tends to focus on narrowly-defined economic benefits , while excluding other real, negative economic drawbacks , like the latter half of boom & bust cycles. Consider this infographic of the “economic impacts” of an Appalachian petrochemical hub scenario–an industry reliant upon the cheap and abundant fracked natural gas of the region. The document offers projected estimates for industry profits and employment levels potentially generated by the five ethane crackers planned for the region. But this document – and its focus on economics – says nothing about the negative consequences to the community. Due to air emissions from these facilities, health costs from fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) could amount to between $120 and $270 million each year, without even factoring in the additional impacts of ozone or toxics. A focus on economic impacts also says nothing about  the incalculable value of lives – and quality of life – lost, which could amount to between 14 and 32 additional deaths annually, plus increased asthma, heart attacks, and bronchitis.[3]

Element #2: “Choice”

A false assumption of choice is built into the fracking-friendly frame. This element assumes that people have a choice–if they don’t like the drilling next door, they can just move. Yet, as well water becomes degraded and countryside views become dominated by unprecedented industrial development, selling a home can be a difficult proposition. As one researcher summed it up,

the various forms of land damage from fracking often result in decreased property values, making resale and farming difficult , and also making it harder to acquire mortgages and insurance. Properties adjoining drilling sites are often simply unsellable, as no one wants to live with the noise, the bad air, and the possibility of water pollution.[4]

Others confirm this fallout to home values. A recent report assessing 16 other studies on how UOGD affects home prices points to significant potential decreases in housing values for those on well water (up to -$33,000) and those without ownership of their mineral rights (up to -$60,000). These unfortunate realities belie the idea of choice.

drilling-rig-home-town-of-mcdonald

pipeline-path-among-homes-washington-county

On left, a white fracking rig at the far left of the image sits near a cabin overlooking the town of McDonald, PA. On right, a pipeline cut descends a hillside and into a residential development outside of Houston, PA. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.

In interviews conducted with women living in close quarters to drilling activity, three health care professionals[5] discovered the sense of powerlessness experienced they felt. One woman contemplated moving away from the region in spite of opposition from her husband and her own attachment to her home. In my own interaction with affected families, many express powerful feelings about relocation like sadness about leaving land owned for generations, or an eagerness to escape a home that no longer feels safe. Many express a sense of injustice for being forced to make such painful choices.

Element #3: “Sacrifice of the few for the good of the many”

Another underlying assumption of a fracking-friendly frame is that of “sacrifice of the few for the good of the many.” It declares that a “few” people will have to live near fracking and bear the unfortunate consequences, so many others can have cheap oil and gas. The belief bubbles up among the public, such as in this comment collected during a survey[6] of people living in the Marcellus shale gas region:

Energy has to come from somewhere. The needs of the many may outweigh the inconvenience of the few who live near the exploration efforts. This is not an ideal situation for all residents, but it is the reality.

This person’s statement shows acceptance of the assumption that energy for all requires unevenly shared sacrifice, and indicates a drastic underestimation of the populations impacted. It also indicates a misperception of the impacts, which unfortunately go far beyond mere “inconvenience” for many residents.

We can break down these assumptions by questioning how many people make sacrifices in the name of gas extraction. An interactive map by FracTracker shows that over 12 million Americans live within a risky ½ mile of oil and gas facilities (including both fracking wells and other types). Mounting research indicates health threats for distances of ½ mile or greater. That meaning this ever-growing number of Americans have increased rates of asthma and prenatal harms, with the most vulnerable – the young, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions – at the highest risk. The 12 million figure, already a conservative estimate, would be significantly higher if factoring in other oil and gas infrastructure like pipelines or frac sand mining operations, each of which carry their own risks.

Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016

Populations in US near activity oil and gas drilling activity in 2016. Click to explore the interactive map.

We can also question the nature of their sacrifice. In terms of health, research has shown correlations between how close women live to fracking operations and certain birth defects and noise-induced sleep disturbance and cardiovascular disease, as just a few examples. Facilities like well pads also come with risks to public safety, such as the Monroe County, Ohio well pad fire that burned unknown chemicals for five days near homes and resulted in 70,000 fish killed in a creek that flows to the Ohio River. Other fracking infrastructure likewise poses potential dangers from the 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline and additional 200,000 for hazardous liquids including  crude oil that crisscross the United States. Between 2010 and 2016 the US experienced 230 reported pipeline explosions, 635 fires, over 20,000 people evacuated, 470 injured, and 100 lives lost.

emergency-contacts-sign-at-pipeline-road-crossing

The view of nearby homes from a pipeline right-of-way, along with list of emergency contacts in case of incident. Safety precautions like these remind us of the potentially injurious nature of gas infrastructure. They also highlight the level of sacrifice being demanded of households near the hazard. Photo credit: Leann Leiter.

Building social support

These elements of a fracking-friendly frame function to isolate those who are experiencing negative effects in their own homes by minimizing, even denying, the impacts they are experiencing. Researchers in extractive regions have observed the power of this isolation. In some rural areas, isolation may be supported in part by cultural norms, such as an Appalachian appreciation for “minding one’s own business.” In at least one fracking-affected community, this widely-accepted norm hampers sharing among neighbors, prompting one resident’s complaint that “we’re all fighting like individuals.”[7] In a study of a community being driven from their homes by coal mining and power generation, another set of extractive, industrial activities, one participant lamented:

I think one of the problems of the mining and the industry is, they play on the basic everyday person’s lack of resources. There’s no social support for displacement, none whatsoever.[8]

A healthy homes frame, focused on universally shared human rights, powerfully counters the isolation. It reminds those who are suffering or have concerns about the changes to their home environment that they are not alone; others around the world are experiencing similar impacts to their households. Adopting this frame for understanding fracking is a show of support, one that acknowledges their plight.

Nearly everyone values and desires a healthy home, regardless of whether that home is an apartment, a nursing home, a cabin, or a mobile home. This frame extends beyond geographical, economical, and cultural barriers. It encourages social support from those currently removed from shale plays and the hydraulic fracturing used in extracting their resources. It empowers action, with the home front as a site of resistance, by articulating the range of rights being violated.

Focusing on what we’re fighting for

Re-centering the problems of fracking as they impact the right to a healthy home makes sense to those of us witnessing the degradation of the places people need in order to live and flourish. A rights-based approach focuses on what we’re fighting for, rather than giving extra airtime to the already-powerful frame we must fight against.

  • If you need assistance protecting your rights from planned fracking, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network offers a guide for communities and their local leaders to defending environmental rights at the municipal level.
  • For those already impacted, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services provides “sliding scale” legal help to people in the Appalachian basin.
  • For communities at any stage of gas development, Environmental Health Project has created a Where to Turn for Help directory full of sources for air testing services, community organizing, health information, tracking and reporting fracking development and violations, and much more.

Whether or not you feel the direct impacts of fracking, we are all connected to this extensive process. Fracking’s commodity products – energy and plastics – are part of all of our lives; it’s climate-altering effect diminishes all of our futures. More importantly, we all have a crucial role to play. Here is how you can get further involved:

  • Communicate with your lawmakers – share with them this article series or your own take on fracking, and ask what frame they are using when they make decisions on this and other dangerous modes of energy extraction.
  • Join Halt the Harm Network to get connected to people, groups and events “working to fight the harms of oil and gas development.”
  • Follow @EnvironmentalHealthProject on Facebook and @EHPinfo on Twitter, and participate in the evolving discussion!

Bringing rights into the conversation on fracking challenges the fracking-friendly frame, and promotes instead protection for those in fracked households.


Special thanks to the many individuals and families who shared the experiences that informed this article series. 

References:

  1. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  2. 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
  3. John Graham, Senior Scientist at Clean Air Task Force, personal communication, June 9, 2017. Health impacts modeling completed using EPA Co-Benefits and Risk Assessment (COBRA) Screening Tool, using estimated PM 2.5 air emissions for permitted Shell ethane cracker in Beaver County, PA and four additional facilities planned in Ohio and West Virginia.
  4. Richard Heinberg cited in 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
  5. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  6. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures. Routledge.
  7. Resick, L. K., Knestrick, J. M., Counts, M. M., & Pizzuto, L. K. (2013). The meaning of health among mid-Appalachian women within the context of the environment. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences , 3 (3), 290-296.
  8. Connor et al., p. 54. Linda Connor, Glenn Albrecht, Nick Higginbotham, Sonia Freeman, and Wayne Smith. (2004). Environmental Change and Human Health in Upper Hunter Communities of New South Wales, Australia. EcoHealth 1 (Suppl.2), ,47-58. DOI: 10.1007/s10393-004-0053-2

By Leann Leiter, Fellow with the Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance

Healthy Homes article in PA

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

definition-of-a-frame

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.

health-frame

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.

Why Now?

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.

pipeline-route-runs-behind-home-and-swingset

A pipeline right-of-way, about 200 yards behind this house and children’s swingset, shows how close fracking infrastructure comes to homes. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

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.

oval-healthy-homes-frame

Household impacts

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

SYMPTOM CATEGORY n Symptom %
UPPER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 39 64% Nose or throat irritation 25 41%
 Sinus pain or infections 17 28%
Nose bleeds 8 13%
CONSTITUTIONAL SYMPTOMS 33 54% Sleep disruption 26 43%
Fatigue 13 21%
 Weak or Drowsy 9 15%
NEUROLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Headache 25 41%
Dizziness 11 18%
Numbness 9 15%
Memory loss 8 13%
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Stress or anxiety 23 38%
Irritable or moody 12 20%
Worry 6 10%
LOWER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 30 49% Cough 21 34%
Shortness of breath 19 31%
Weezing 14 23%
GASTRO-INTESTINAL SYMPTOMS 27 44% Nausea 13 21%
Abdominal pain 12 20%
EYE SYMPTOMS 23 38% Itchy eyes 11 18%
Painful or dry 10 16%
DERMATOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 19 31% Rash 10 16%
Itching 7 11%
Lesions or blisters 6 10%
CARDIAC SYMPTOMS 17 28% Palpitations 9 15%
Chest pain 6 10%
Other cardiac symptoms 6 10%
HEARING CHANGES OR TINNITUS 10 16% Hearing loss 3 5%
Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) 10 16%
 MUSCULOSKELETAL 10 16% Painful joints 9 15%
Aches 7 11%
ENDOCRINE 7 11% Hair loss 7 11%
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 Trifold Cover

Click to expand and explore the tri-fold. Click here to access and print this free resource, and many others by EHP.

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 info@environmentalhealthproject.org.

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.

References

  1. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  2. 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
  3. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  4. Mando, J. (2016). Constructing the vicarious experience of proximity in a Marcellus Shale public hearing. Environmental Communication, 10(3), 352-364.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry: A Collective Step to Track the Impacts of Fracking

“It’s all about facts. Documented facts…”

… asserted a county commissioner to a recent gathering of concerned residents in Hannibal, Ohio. His comment came at the end of over an hour of deeply moving narratives from residents, sharing disturbing changes in their health after a disastrous well pad fire in their community and other ongoing shale development in the area. One family, whose home was blanketed by the heavy black smoke from the fire, which burned for five days in 2014, told of respiratory problems, hair loss, newly-diagnosed thyroid issues, and a premature birth. Another family reported worsening of existing cardiac conditions, sleep disturbances, and considerable stress due to continued encroachment of pipelines and compression stations.

lisa-photo-1

Figure 1: Residents of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota live amid numerous oil rigs. Photo credit: Shalefield Stories, Vol. 2.

Throughout the country, personal stories like these offer a meaningful window into the experiences of people living at the frontlines of shale gas and oil development – often called ‘fracking.’ But aggregated into a formal health registry, these experiences can also form the kind of documentation needed to inform public health research and legislators who, like the county commissioner in Ohio, insist on documented evidence before issuing health-protective policies.

A health registry is “a dataset of uniform information about individuals collected in a systematic and comprehensive way, in order to serve a predetermined medical or public health purpose.”

The Southwest PA Environmental Health Project (EHP), in partnership with the Genetic Alliance, has just introduced the first such national system. In this online system, participants share – and control access to – their own data, making it unique among many other registries. This exciting new forum invites those living, working, or going to school near shale gas and oil development, like the families described above, to share their exposures and document their health symptoms. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that personal stories are collected, respected, and treated as the important data that they are.

Figure 2: These quick and informative videos introduce EHP’s Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry and how it works. They feature the voices of those who helped create it, including public health professionals, the director of EHP, and a community member.

Why a registry?

Public health research affirms that there are significant health risks for those living, working, or attending school near shale gas and oil development. Research points to links between proximity to fracking and worsened asthma and other respiratory impacts and skin conditions; fracking’s noise pollution and stress-related conditions, like cardiovascular problems; and low birth weight babies among mothers living near numerous hydraulically fractured wells.

Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) conducted a thorough examination of the extensive and growing body of shale gas and oil-related research and found that between 2009 and 2015, 84% of the studies focused on health have findings that “indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.”

US map of populations near active drilling activity

Figure 3: Populations in the U.S. near active drilling. The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry has a national scope. Click on the image to learn more about how this map was made.

For years, some medical professionals attuned to environmental effects on health have noted correlations between fracking and health symptoms in their patients. But without a clear explanation of causation that links such symptoms to fracking, researchers need more data.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society recommended a registry as a necessary step toward getting a grasp on the public health problem. A health registry collects health data systematically, and may support further epidemiology and toxicology research by putting these patterns in higher contrast.

Laying the Groundwork

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry did not emerge in isolation, but rather is one of several ongoing efforts toward gathering the innumerable accounts of health symptoms from shale development regions around the country.

Important grassroots initiatives include the List of the Harmed, started by Jenny Lisak in 2011. The List catalogues over 20,000 stories of human, animal, and environmental impacts. The Natural Gas Exploration & Production Health and Community Impacts Survey, created by The Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS), is an effort to collect health impact information from individuals in shale gas communities and hopefully trigger further review from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Additionally, there are numerous peer reviewed studies on the topic, but they are often too limited in scope and size to be generalized to communities outside of where the data was originally collected.

Families in Washington Co., Pa who are facing possible issues through the creation of cybergentic gas processing plant in western Pa. A Cibus Imperial compression station sits above a suburban community, people there are fearful of their air quality because of this plant, in Bulger, PA

Figure 4: In Washington County, PA, houses sit just below a compressor station, a type of natural gas facility that can produce air emissions, noise, and light pollution. In the health registry, participants can answer questions about the types of facilities they are exposed to. Photo credit: Karen Kasmauski, iLCP.

Two states have begun their own registry-related efforts. Colorado’s Oil & Gas Health Information and Response Program includes an online self-referral form, a hotline for those with health concerns potentially related to oil and gas, and a health information “clearinghouse.” Their program aims to illuminate “possible health effects related to oil and gas operations,” which the program intends to make available to the public, researchers, and policy-makers (source).

Pennsylvania, where EHP does much of its on-the-ground work, has a history of legislative calls for its own registry, beginning with recommendations issued by Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in 2011. The Secretary of Health at the time called a registry “the most timely and important initiative” for the Department of Health (DOH). Current Governor Tom Wolf called for a shale gas health registry in his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. He proposed budgeting $100,000 to the PA Department of Health (DOH) for the cause, although health professionals argue that more is needed to implement an effective registry. According to recent conversations with EHP, DOH is in the process of developing a system similar to Colorado’s, in coordination with that state. For the time being, Pennsylvanians seeking assistance from DOH will find a webpage with limited information, directing calls to the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology.

Making the Registry a Reality

There is a clear need for a system to collect individuals’ exposures and health symptoms, with a national scope that matches the country-wide scale of shale development. Yet, the costs of initiating and maintaining a registry, political issues related to industry reporting on the chemicals they use and discharge, and scientific issues such as scant exposure data and limited funding for research, are some of the various obstacles that faced the implementation of a health registry.

From a health perspective, symptoms potentially related to drilling activity may be similar to symptoms from unrelated causes, or may be exacerbations of existing health conditions. Added to this is the complexity of exposure sources, since an individual or family may live, work, or go to school in proximity to multiple types of shale gas and oil facilities. Moreover, those at the frontlines of shale oil and gas development – whose health data is essential to the registry – may be reluctant to participate due to social or family pressures.

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry directly addresses each of these challenges. Using an existing registry infrastructure created by Genetic Alliance significantly reduced the costs of launching and maintaining the registry. Including systematic questions that let users record their proximity to – and frequency of – exposure captures the complexity of this important information. And through steps like collecting zip codes instead of home addresses, and offering the choice of privacy settings that only allow researchers to see data in anonymous form, the registry ensures confidentiality and user control of data.

Figure 6. A variety of sources can trigger health issues during shale gas and oil development. These include air emissions from processing facilities and well pad accidents, as well as the heavy truck traffic required to drill and frack a well; spills and other forms of water contamination; and psychological impacts like stress and sleep disruption. 

End Result: The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry

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Figure 7: The health registry includes a set of questions for participants whose exposures come from working in the gas and oil industry. Photo credit: Bill Hughes.

The result of these efforts is a secure, online system where participants – people within five miles of shale gas and oil development, with or without health symptoms – can create an account for themselves and/or their family members. The online registry guides them through a series of screens inviting them to share the various exposures they encounter, such as heavy truck traffic, air emissions, and water impacts. Participants can catalogue and update health symptoms that have surfaced or worsened during their exposure, while controlling who can view and share their personal information.

Industry workers and children can even be registered in this system using a set of tailored questions. The registry also allows an assistor to create a profile and answer the questions for someone not comfortable with or able to use the online system.

One Registry to Meet Many Needs

EHP created the health registry to respond to the needs of several groups: affected communities, researchers, policymakers, and the public.

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Figure 8: A resident of Washington County, PA sits in front of paperwork documenting health struggles that may be connected to shale gas development near her home. Photo credit: Shalefield Stories, Vol. 2.

In developing the health registry, EHP recognized that those affected by shale development must not be treated as “data points,” but as collaborators in – and beneficiaries of – the process. As a venue to share health concerns, the registry helps give voice to those who may be suffering in silence. Participants can connect with researchers, receive a biannual newsletter of updates on the growing size of the registry and new knowledge around health impacts and treatment. In the long view, the registry gives individuals an opportunity to take part in a large-scale effort that may ultimately inform positive change and promote protections from ever-expanding shale development.

 The data participants provide via the registry can also help researchers identify emergent patterns and generate testable hypotheses for new studies. Through this process, a registry can enable research that is responsive to community needs.

Policymakers stand to benefit, as well. The patterns that the registry highlights, and the additional research it makes possible, can help elected leaders to understand the scope of the health problem. In time, this knowledge can inform policies and regulations that benefit those living in shale country.

A chance to be a part of something larger

EHP encourages those who live near shale gas and oil development, with or without health symptoms, to register now and fill out the registry questionnaire. The three-step process takes only about 20 minutes.

  1. Share: Answer as many questions as you would like, and control how and with whom that information is shared
  2. Connect: Find out how you compare to others, and let support and helpful resources come to you
  3. Discover: If you wish, let researchers access your information to help them understand the health impacts of shale oil and gas development and transport

Researchers and healthcare providers who want to take part in the possibilities created by the registry, such as studying data patterns from participants who have elected to share certain information, can contact Jill Kriesky (jkriesky@environmentalhealthproject.org) or Beth Weinberger (bweinberger@environmentalhealthproject.org) for more information.

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Sincere Appreciation

Many thanks to those who contributed to this article about the Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry through interviews and by sharing the images used in this story.

The International League of Conservation Photographers and the Environmental Integrity Project for sharing photographs of families coping with fracking where they live, “The Human Cost of Energy Production.”

Dana Dolney, co-founder of Friends of the Harmed. Friends of the Harmed, publishers of Shalefield Stories, dedicate 100% of donations they receive to providing much-needed direct aid to families negatively affected by fracking.

Jenny Lisak, creator of List of the Harmed. List of the Harmed is an ever-growing list of the individuals and families that have been harmed by fracking (or fracked gas and oil production) in the U.S.

Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens’ Group. Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) is a collaborative endeavor to preserve and protect clean air, land and water as a civil and basic human right in the face of the threat posed by the shale gas extraction industry.

Jill Kriesky, Associate Director and Beth Weinberger, Research & Communications Specialist, both of The Southwest PA Environmental Health Project. The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that assists and supports residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD, or “fracking”).


By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow, FracTracker Alliance & EHP