Insight revealed at Marcellus Academy of West Virginia Sierra Club
By Michael M. Barrick
BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – Fracking poses clear, serious and even deadly public health risks said two experts on the topic at the Marcellus Academy, an educational initiative of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. The event – held June 27th and 28th at West Virginia Wesleyan College – was the fifth such gathering said Liz Wiles, the chairperson of the Sierra Club in West Virginia.
Dr. Mike McCawley, of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences at the West Virginia University School of Public Health, and Dr. Jill Kriesky, of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), discussed public health research and assessments regarding the health threats associated with fracking; each also touched upon policy challenges and suggestions.
Breaking the ‘Pathway to Exposure’ the first step; multiple diseases identified
Kriesky said that her organization’s objective is to provide accurate, timely and trusted public health information and services associated with natural gas extraction.
Hence, the EHP first focuses its response on breaking the pathway to exposure, explained Kriesky. This is done by warning the vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, children and those with asthma and respiratory diseases.
The group monitors air and water quality and is beginning to do the same with soil. It offers community outreach through partnerships with watershed groups, community groups and those concerned about the placement of gas wells near schools.
They also conduct health assessments, though, revealed Kriesky, “We don’t recruit people. They find us. People know when they’re sick.” Health assessments include gathering a full health history of the client, vital signs and symptoms, determination of exposure (including researching the potential of occupational or household source exposure), and recommendations for further medical consultation, and cutting off the pathway of pathogens.
The group has had enough clients now to predict when people will begin presenting with symptoms. Noting that the agency does not have a “control group” for research purposes, she said, “All of Washington County (Pa.) is within one mile (of fracking activity). The whole county is essentially a control group.”
Kriesky said that 113 people have met the screening criteria, meaning “they have to have a plausible exposure.” Illnesses of the respiratory, dermatological, eye, nose and throat, gastro-intestinal, cardiac, neurological, psychiatric, endocrine and ear systems were documented.
Kriesky pointed out that 60 percent of the 113 people reported nose and throat illnesses, 58 percent neurological symptoms, 57 percent psychiatric illnesses and 53 percent had respiratory symptoms.
Kriesky said, “A skeptic might ask, ‘How many people have you seen,’ but we ask, ‘How many does it take?’ There is pretty decisive evidence that these are health impacts – chemical and non-chemical – from fracking.”
She encouraged attendees to challenge elected officials. “This is about policy. It is worthy of action. We need to do something about it.”
In fact, EHP has put forth some specific proposals.
It is proposing a health registry which would provide data for long-term research that would inform public policy. The group prepared a white paper on the health impacts of fracking, data on emissions and a compilation of existing health registries. It also held a national workshop that proposed the development of registries from NGOs and existing data; proposed a “case definition” of what a person impacted by unnatural gas development looks like.” Kriesky explained, “It would help practitioners understand that if you see this, then you are seeing symptoms related to Marcellus shale development. That does not exist now.”
Kriesky said immediate steps can and should be taken, such as requiring that fracking activities be moved a safe distance from places where there are vulnerable populations, such as schools.
McCawley challenges EPA, tells about fracking research station
McCawley, meanwhile, called for improved and expanded monitoring of dust and other particulates by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), such as those emitted by diesel engines.
Those people most vulnerable to the damaging effects of fracking – those living closest to it – are showing signs of pediatric asthma, cardiopulmonary disease and cancer, said McCawley. He argued additional research must be conducted, but accused the EPA of being an impediment to further and refined studies. “They know about it. They aren’t doing anything about it,” asserted McCawley. He added, “It’s the not regulated part we should be concerned about.”
McCawley argued that even though disease rates are increased in fracking areas, the EPA does not measure particulate matter associated with fracking – for instance dust and diesel fuel – at small enough levels to accurately assess their impact upon people. Researchers, for instance, are finding people experiencing inflammation that is association with any number of diseases. “That’s a problem,” McCawley insisted, adding, “Anything that can cause inflammation in the cell can cause disease.” So, he said, he looks for opportunities to metaphorically “kick the EPA in the shin.” He did here.
The EPA, said McCawley, is not measuring appropriate dose levels of particulate matter that cause cancer, affect auto-immune and neurological systems, and pass through the placenta, causing birth defects and diseases. He asked, rhetorically, “Should there be regulations for this? I think so. Maybe I’m out on a limb on this.”
In the interim, WVU is measuring particulate matter from its own experimental gas well in Morgantown. McCawley said the university will monitor exposure levels, health records from hospitals, and medical symptoms, in particular those associated with cardiopulmonary diseases.
Wiles said the information was valuable. “I was surprised to learn that the EPA is doing monitoring in a way that does not give the correct picture on particulate levels.” She hinted at some action in response. “This could be an initiative for us this year. It is yet another example of how fossil fuels in general are bad not just for the environment, but people. They go hand-in-hand.”
This one issue is an example of the work facing the Sierra Club, said Wiles. “We are very much about grass roots, local people working on local issues. We want the people of this state to know the consequences from Marcellus development.” She concluded, “Then, go out and educate folks in their communities.”
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