Doctor’s Tip: Fracking is not good for human health or the planet’s
Proposition 112 on this year’s ballot increases the buffer zone between new oil and gas wells and homes, schools, hospitals and water sources from the current 500 feet to 2,500 feet. Drilling new wells usually involves fracking. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), “in fracking, a complex mixture of chemicals is combined with millions of gallons of water, then pumped deep underground under high pressure to fracture rock, thus releasing tiny bubbles of gas or oil.” From a public health perspective, 2,500 feet is clearly better than 500 feet — not only for new wells but old ones as well (proposition 112 addresses only new wells). PSR and some other physician organizations say that due to its dangers to public health and the health of our planet, fracking should be banned altogether, and some states have done that.
It’s important for physicians to speak out about health problems associated with fracking, as well as those associated with global warming. Although most of us go into medicine to help individuals, many physicians now feel they also have a responsibility to address societal and global issues that affect the health of large numbers of people. Physicians for Social Responsibility was founded over 50 years ago to abolish nuclear weapons. Since then its mission has broadened to “educate and advocate on urgent issues that threaten human health and survival, with the goals of reversing the trajectory towards climate change, protecting the public and the environment from toxic chemicals, and addressing the health consequences of fossil fuels.”
After studying the adverse health effects of fracking, PSR recommends that fracking should be banned. Following are just some of the reasons:
• Water contamination: The gas industry refuses to release a list of all the chemicals used in fracking, but we know what some of them are: benzene, known to cause blood cancers such a leukemia; formaldehyde, a known carcinogen; petroleum distillate toxins which “render water undrinkable.” These and other chemicals not only contaminate water near fracking sites, but have been found to contaminate deep aquifers and can leak from pipes.
• Air contamination: Particulate matter released into the air by fracking and by leaks in gas pipelines contributes to lung diseases including asthma, emphysema and lung cancer; and cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes). Volatile organic compounds including benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and xylene are released into the air around fracking sites, and can cause harm to multiple organ systems.
• Radioactive substances such as radon — an important cause of lung cancer — can be released by fracking.
• Pregnant women and children: Studies have shown that women living around fracking sites have a higher incidence of pregnancy complications, including birth defects and premature births. Children exposed to fracking chemicals can experience health problems, and additional problems will likely become apparent as they grow older.
Although these health problems associated with fracking are bad enough, they all pale in comparison to the human sickness and death that is expected if we fail to prevent further climate change, which is now seen by public health experts as the greatest health crisis we face and have ever faced. Tens of thousands if not millions of people are expected to become sick, to die, and/or be displaced due to heat waves, severe storms with flooding, droughts and other extreme weather events; spread of diseases carried by insects and other vectors (e.g. West Nile, malaria, Lyme disease); rising seas levels; wildfires; and decreased crop yields. Recently the United Nations released a report on climate change, which painted a bleak picture for our planet and its inhabitants by 2040 — just 22 years from now. Climate change demands our immediate attention, including a commitment to leaving fossil fuels in the ground. The U.N. report led to a column by Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post with the title “Earth’s fate is all that matters now” — meaning that climate change overshadows everything else.
Physicians for Responsible Medicine calls for a “swift and equitable transition to the production and deployment of energy efficiency and virtually carbon-free renewable energy sources. … Our health and that of future generations deserve and depend on a clean energy future.” Even the AMA (American Medical Association) — usually thought of as a rather conservative organization — passed a resolution “calling on itself to divest from companies that get the majority of their income from fossil fuels.” It also pledged “to do business only with vendors that have environmental sustainability policies.”
In summary, for optimal human health, at the very least we need to have 2,500-foot buffer zones around drilling sites. But the evidence makes it clear that to deal with the adverse effects of climate change on human health, we need to do so much more — now.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.
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