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Fracking, Health and Our Chemical History

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A brief version of this post, by my colleague Ansje Miller and Connie Hogarth, also appeared in the Westchester Journal.

In 1929, the Monsanto company introduced a new class of chemicals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), substances that would revolutionize electronics. Seven years later, several workers at the Halowax Corporation in New York who worked with PCBs fell ill, and three died of severe liver failure. By the mid-1930's, officials Monsanto and General Electric (GE), which was one of the leading licensees of the technology, knew about the potential health effects of PCBs. Soon more studies linked PCB exposures to cancer, developmental problems, and damage to the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems.

But the corporations continued their production and use of PCBs for decades. Finally, the chemicals were banned by Congress (the only such specific chemical ban ever enacted) in 1976. By then, GE had dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River, making areas of the River the country's largest "Superfund" contamination zone, threatening the health and environment for millions of New Yorkers to this day. Millions more Americans are threatened today by other failures to assess and avoid the health problems caused by chemical-dependent technologies.

Today another technology that makes use of harmful chemicals is being proposed for New York and across the country. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas is a new technique that relies on the use of hundreds of chemicals linked to serious health problems. Though fracking companies keep their chemical use secret, a 2011 study identified more than 600 chemicals used in fracking. Many of these chemicals have never been fully assessed for health risks, but 353 were frequently cited in scientific studies. Twenty-five percent of these 353 fracking chemicals were linked to cancer and mutations; 40-50% can affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75% can harm the skin, eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

The study also found that 37% of these 353 fracking chemicals could disrupt our bodies' natural hormones, with impacts on sexual development, reproductive health and fertility. Health problems from these substances, called endocrine disrupting chemicals, can manifest at different stages of life - from neonatal and infant periods to the aging adult. Some endocrine disruptors can even have health impacts across generations: the 1960s pregnancy drug DES, which was banned after its harmful properties were discovered, caused abnormal female sexual development in the granddaughters of patients who were prescribed the drug.

The fracking industry says that fracking fluids contain just "a very small percentage" of chemicals, and include friendly chemicals like guar gum that's used in ice cream! One fracking executive even took a swig of his company's chemical-water cocktail to demonstrate its safety.

In fact, the "small percentage" of harmful chemicals found in the millions of gallons of fluid that are used in each fracking well will result in massive amounts of chemicals injected into the ground and in the polluted wastewater that fracking creates. Scientists know that many chemicals are harmful at extremely small amounts. Arsenic, for example, is regulated in water at the level of just 10 parts per billion -- an amount equivalent to a few drops of the substance in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

In the case of endocrine disrupting chemicals, small exposures can be more harmful than higher doses. This low-dose paradox has been well-established: last March, a comprehensive review of 800 studies by 12 leading scientists concluded that endocrine-disrupting chemicals can cause health problems and disabilities even when people are exposed to tiny doses. The lead author of the study stated that there are "no safe doses for these hormone-altering chemicals."

In New York, CEH joined hundreds of protesters earlier this month at a state legislative hearing on fracking, as the state faces a late February deadline to approve new fracking regulations. We urged Governor Cuomo to learn from the industry's history of putting their profits ahead of our health and environment by maintaining the moratorium on fracking until a full and independent health impacts assessment has been released and reviewed.

But to date the governor's track record is not promising. He promised an internal health review before fracking would be considered, but that review hasn't even been finished. He promised that outside experts would be brought in, but comments from the experts have not been released. He said people would have the right to know about chemicals used in fracking, but the proposed new rules allow industry to keep their chemicals secret.

What's worse, the governor promised an open, public process. Instead, he released the draft rules right before Christmas, and gave the public just 30 days to comment.

It's not too late for New Yorkers to take action and tell the governor not to repeat the past mistakes of PCBs with fracking. Write Governor Cuomo, tell your state Senator and Assembly member, and write a letter to the editor. Add your voice to the millions of New Yorkers who want to put our health and environment before the fracking industry's rush to profits.

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