Dr. Jill Kriesky was the Senior Project Coordinator at The University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire in economics, an M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a B.A. in economics and political science from Grinnell College. She has been in interested in Marcellus Shale issues since 2009.
Q: Because there is so much uncertainty of the health effects from fracking, what do you think that the public and government agencies should be doing in order to protect people's health?
A: At the federal and state government level it would be important to institute the research that would give some definitive answers on what is going on with health impacts. In Pennsylvania, when the legislature was debating the legislation that regulates Marcellus Shale drilling, the suggestion was made to institute a health registry, which is a way to track what people’s health conditions are. This would allow people who do research to follow up, but this did not pass. Nothing has been done on it in state legislature.
I think what they really should be doing is to do a good epidemiology study, a good baseline study, more tracking health of people over time. This study would also need to track exposure to water and air. That is the level of study that needs to be done in order to get agreement among the industry, public, community. Government wouldn’t conduct it, but they would fund this type of research.
There are people who live in these communities where drilling is going on having health problems that didn’t occur before drilling. They are convinced that it is from drilling. Right now, there needs to be efforts to stop the exposure to the sources you think the contamination is coming from. Local health departments should be providing information for individuals who think that the air will get you sick and water will get you sick. The Southwest Environmental Project is the only organization currently doing this. They provide on line simple recommendations to limit exposures. For example, if you think there are problems with flow back ponds that sometimes overflow and if you think that there is contamination in soil, don’t wear shoes in the house.
Q: What are some precautions that the fracking companies should be doing in order to prevent a public scare?
A: I think there are things that are helpful. They are required by law to post the chemicals they are using in the fracking process, unless they are trade secrets. This is proprietary information to keep whatever competitive advantage they have over their competitors. But often other companies can figure out what they are doing. Secrecy over proprietarychemicals should not be allowed. Such secrecy can cause unnecessary concern to the public. Companies are required to test well water in a certain radius from where they are drilling, and now a few companies are going even further.
The other thing is to talk to the community in advance in what they will be doing. The changes in the community are disruptive. They should tell how many truck trips there will be and that there will be a lot of noise pollution and traffic. Being more upfront about what is going to happen in the town and what will happen in the backyard if they are drilling there.
Q: How have past fracking sites dealt with this concern about health with the public?
A: There are several high-profile cases in which the companies denied that they were impacting residents’ health. But there was some serious contamination and people were getting sick. The homeowners end up in court saying that the fracking companies are destroying their water or air quality. Companies have settled and sometimes bought the property from the people with the complaints. We don’t know much about this because the companies have people sign non-disclosure agreements so they cannot discuss proof of harm or terms of the settlement.
I think a regulatory process needs to be in place and enforced to assure that the process is done safely. Are some companies going to make a greater effort to be sure what they are doing is safe? Well they don't want bad publicity. But this varies a lot depending on the companies. To protect all residents near fracking sites, government enforcement of reasonable regulations is key.
Q: What do you think are the most concerning health problems that occur from fracking?
A: No one really has done a complete study. There have been impacts on water and I think those should cause a lot of concern. There has been information how fracking chemicals have gotten into well water. We don’t know how much of that water people have drunk, showered in, wash and cooked food in the water.
There is at least one study out now showing that chemicals in the air within a half-mile within a drilling site contained dangerous chemicals, capable of causing cancer in large enough doses. We don’t really know how much exposure they really get in these locations. So in the short run, we should be sure that the amount of exposure is limited. There must also be studies to determine the doses to which residents are exposed to nearby fracking over time.
Another big concern in communities where this occurs is a lot of social change like truck traffic, influx in workers, changes in housing market. There are big social impacts and we know that there are social determinants of health that impact quality of life issues for people who don’t live directly near a drilling site. They may still feel stress of disagreement among people which in turn can impact health.
Q: Do you know if many hospitalizations have occurred because of fracking?
A: Difficult problem. There are the community people who are impacted, workers we know nothing about. Anecdotally I have heard of people who work in the emergency room seeing people who have accidents and falls at the drilling pad sites. They sometimes pay with cash which makes it more difficult to research the types of conditions treated. If it is a serious accident, they want to be treated quickly and sometimes they go home. No way to track this. One study that was done by OSHA on silica 2012 because they use sand in the fracking process. The workers on the site are breathing in silica sand and this can be extremely hazardous to health. They did this study at 11 sites across the country and found incredible amount of sand inhaled.
Q: Any other remarks you might have concerning human health effects from fracking that would be most useful for students at Lehigh University.
A: Lehigh is not in an area where there is fracking nearby. Really what you are most likely to see is related to truck traffic and influx of workers in the area. People who live very close to a fracking sites need to be aware of water, air, and soil pathways. Also what are the social impacts in the broader communities may experience this when the industry comes to the area?