This week, the group Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) declared they would submit a petition to the White House signed by 107 experts to urge the administration to slow down and consider the health effects of natural gas fracking before allowing any new permits. They want the government to consider the two ethical principles adhered to by physicians: “do no harm” and that of “informed consent.”
The petition stems from the possibility that the Obama administration might “fast-track” the permits for LNG exports. LNG, or liquefied natural gas, comes almost exclusively from the fracking process. The government wants to build export terminals to sell the gas overseas, which would increase demand and production for fracked gas within our borders.
The main concern is with flowback water produced during the fracking process that comes back up to the surface. Companies still won't reveal what's in the chemical fluid mixed with water used to extract the gas citing a potential “loss of competitive advantage.”
Even with known chemicals, doctors and scientists are still studying the ways that public health could be put at risk by exposure. The flowback water from the wells poses a high risk to communities through both water and air contamination.
During a press conference, Adam Law, MD, at Cayuga Medical Center, Ithaca, NY, talked about how certain chemicals act as endocrine disruptors, attacking people's reproductive, neurological, and immune systems. With certain toxic chemicals, the body can absorb up to a certain threshold without experiencing negative effects. However, Dr. Law described how many endocrine disruptors, which some of the chemicals used in fracking fluid are, can affect the body even at very low concentrations.
Even so, it's not very well known how chemicals can accumulate over time in our bodies, and how that affects DNA mutation, causes problems like cancer and other deteriorative effects. This is a new field of study, called epigenetics, in which scientists are looking into cumulative effects of toxic chemicals and their effects on DNA.
There also haven't been any studies on synergistic effects - the effects of chemicals when they are combined. Experts can test how each chemical affects the body singularly, but there have been no studies on what happens when people are exposed to toxic insults acting together.
Lastly, some experts believe that exposure through waterways is one danger, but are actually more concerned with exposure of chemicals and toxins from the fracking process through air pathways, which are less well-known. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone, and methane all pose a threat to human health because they can enter the body directly through the lungs.
Based on these unknowns alone, there is no way we can abide by the ethical principles of “do no harm” and “informed consent” when experts don't understand the totality of possible risks of exposure to chemicals the public isn't completely privy to. We should not be thrusting economics and policy above the safety of human health until further study is conducted.
The full text of the PSE petition reads as follows:
“We the undersigned medical and scientific professionals urge the Obama Administration to put a hold on moving forward on the construction of new liquefied natural gas terminals for the large-scale exportation of shale gas to foreign nations. Our concern is that the Administration has not fully examined the potential for harm to health and the environment that could result.
There is a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas extraction from shale (also known as 'fracking') may be associated with adverse health risks through exposure to polluted air, water, and soil.
Public health researchers and medical professionals question the continuation of current levels of fracking without a full scientific understanding of the health implications. The opening of LNG export facilities would serve to accelerate fracking in the United States in absence of sound scientific assessment, placing policy before health.
As the White House and the Department of Energy contemplate exporting LNG to accommodate international demand for energy, the need for a deliberative process based on sound science is all the more important. We assert that a guiding ethical principle for public policy on fracking should parallel that used by physicians: 'First, do not harm.'
There is a need for much more scientific and epidemiologic information about the potential for harm from fracking. To facilitate a rapid increase in fracking in the United States without credible science is irresponsible and could potentially cause undue harm to many Americans.
Without well-designed scientific studies, we will not know the extent of potential harm from fracking. We strongly urge the Administration to err on the side of caution as it contemplates national policy regarding the exportation of shale gas.
The health professionals below sign as individuals and do not necessarily represent the views of their employer.”
For the full list of signers of the PSE petition, go to http://www.psehealthyenergy.org/.