Reduced milk production. Gastrointestinal, neurological and urological issues. Sudden death. These are just a few of the symptoms experienced by livestock living near natural gas fracking sites and catalogued in a recent paper studying the impact of natural gas drilling on human and animal health.
The peer-reviewed study, conducted by a veterinarian and a researcher from the Department of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, was published in January in New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, and inspired an investigative report published Nov. 28 in The Nation. (Download the full study here.)
The paper was reportedly the first peer-reviewed study linking fracking with health issues in animals that are intended for human consumption. It examined case histories of 24 farms in six states in which fracking occurs. The farms were not identified in the paper.
As the authors wrote in the abstract to their paper, "animals can be used as sentinels to monitor impacts to human health" because they "are exposed continually to air, soil and groundwater and have more frequent reproductive cycles." The authors say their study illustrates how certain aspects of gas drilling operations may lead to health problems for humans and animals, although they also caution that "complete evidence regarding health impacts of gas drilling cannot be obtained due to incomplete testing and disclosure of chemicals, and nondisclosure agreements." They are calling for more rigorous testing of fracking processes and procedures, calling gas drilling and the toxic chemicals used "an uncontrolled health experiment" that could have further impacts on humans.
The researchers interviewed all but one of the 24 farmers, as well as many of their veterinarians, plus state regulators and drilling company representatives. The study included farms that were close to conventional wells and the horizontal wells that use fracking, a total of 25 wells. All well types were found to have introduced toxic chemicals into the environment, mostly into wells or springs. Other sources of toxins entering the environment included storm water runoff, compressor station malfunctions, pipeline leaks and wastewater spreading onto nearby roads.
In the most dramatic case, 17 cows on one farm died within an hour when "a worker shut down a chemical blender during the fracturing process, allowing the release of fracturing fluids into an adjacent cow pasture."
In addition, homes near some of the gas drilling sites were tested. Two families, whose homes showed high levels of benzene, were experiencing "fatigue, headaches, nosebleeds, rashes and sensory deficits," among other symptoms.
The authors have called for numerous steps to be taken to improve human and animal health, including disclosure of all chemicals used in the fracking process, third-party testing and sampling, and further regulation of fracking chemicals under the Safe Water Drinking Act.
The energy industry has attacked the study, calling it "fatally flawed" and "an advocacy piece" that "does not qualify as a scientific paper." Industry commentators criticized that the 24 farms were not disclosed, say the authors have no track record of environmental investigation, and say the peer-review process "was not very stringent."