If everything goes as planned, Angie Nordstrum's son may look out the window of his second-grade classroom at Red Hawk Elementary this fall and see a full-scale natural gas drilling operation.
He and his classmates, Nordstrum noted, will then have no choice but to breathe emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene and other toxic pollutants -- even while they tend to a 1,500-square-foot organic garden at their LEED-certified school.
"This is so disturbing on so many levels," said Nordstrum, of Erie, Colo.
Natural gas production is rapidly increasing across the country -- from Pennsylvania to Colorado. According to many public health experts, the natural and manmade chemicals released during drilling, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and reinjection steps are making more and more people sick. Adding to the concern are new findings showing the associated air pollution, and the dangers of exposure to very small doses of certain chemicals. Developing fetuses and young children can be the most vulnerable to these effects.
In addition to the pollutants, and the intense noise, a natural gas operation looks like a "Christmas tree on steroids," noted Nordstrum, a member of the grassroots group of parents, Erie Rising, which is battling the gas wells.
"So much is being said in news about how this is the new clean fuel," she said. "It's not."
Water pollution has been the focus of the fracking debate on the East Coast, however, air pollution may be the main source of exposure in many areas. According to a new study in Colorado that sampled air quality over the course of three years, people living within a half-mile of an oil or gas well were exposed to a number of toxic chemicals including benzene, a known carcinogen. VOC levels measured five times the safety limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"For children, the potential cancer risk is a serious consideration. They are more sensitive, exposed at younger ages and for longer periods of time," said Lisa McKenzie, lead researcher on the study at the Colorado School of Public Health.
McKenzie said the results also pointed to potentially significant respiratory and neurological effects. For children, this could mean more headaches, sore throats and asthma. "Children are more sensitive to all of these pollutants, whether traditional ozone, dust or particulates caused by hydrocarbons leaking out of the wells or the diesel trucks carrying the materials," added Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, whose goal is to protect public health and the environment.
Lunder called the new findings "sobering" and emphasized the need for further study. "There are an incredible number of other industrial chemicals involved," she said. But research is complicated by the fact that these chemicals tend to vary from well to well, with names and quantities not always disclosed by the fracking company.
But, not everyone is convinced of the associated airborne risks. "It is important to put this paper into context," said Tom Amontree, executive vice president of the America's Natural Gas Alliance. "Not a single human being's health was evaluated here."
"Natural gas companies take seriously the health and safety of their workers and the communities in which they operate," he added.
Overall, of the 353 identifiable chemicals that result from natural gas production, a quarter are likely carcinogens and 37 percent affect the endocrine system, according to another study published in September.
Theo Colborn, the lead researcher on that study, is also a co-author on a paper published earlier this month that concluded that tiny doses of endocrine disruptors, which also live in pesticides and plastics, can have profound impacts on the human body.
The list of potential consequences of endocrine disruptors includes obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cognitive problems and infertility. "We know that endocrine disruptors present at parts per billion or trillion in a mother's body can completely change the development of a child," Colborn told HuffPost.
Erie's eight pending natural gas wells would sit close to not only Red Hawk, but another elementary school, a middle school and a day care center in the well-to-do suburb. Local parents are convinced that the hundreds of gas wells already scattered throughout town may be at least partly responsible for various ailments in local children like severe asthma, chronic sinusitis and stomach problems.
All three of April Beach's sons suffer from chronic conditions that appear to be triggered by the pollution. One night, after one of his frequent dizzy spells, her 7-year-old Jacob wanted some answers: "Why are they doing this to us? Why can't they make it stop?" Beach recounted.
"I have this drive to not only protect my kids but to protect all the kids who don't have a voice in this," said Beach, founder of Erie Rising. "We need to stop allowing kids to be guinea pigs."
The Beach family will soon be moving out of Erie. "We have to get away from here," said Beach, adding that the pending move may mean financial suicide since they can't sell their house. "I couldn't sleep at night if I knew another family was sleeping in this house with kids."