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Is Fracking Making People Sick?

Air Date: Week of
Some of Dr. Amy Pare's patients had skin lesions. She found chemicals from drilling in their urine. (Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

Some Pennsylvania residents who live near Marcellus Shale gas wells believe natural gas drilling is contaminating their water and making them sick. But others point to the economic benefits of fracking and say there’s little scientific evidence that exposure to drilling activities causes illness. Reid Frazier of The Allegheny Front reports.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is a recycled edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

A recent study adds to the growing evidence, and controversy, about the possible health effects from the natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing. Researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health monitored fracking wells in the state for three years and found that many were emitting toxic hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. The researchers say this may contribute, to "acute and chronic health problems for those living near" the sites.

The findings in Colorado would seem to support residents in Pennsylvania who live near fracking wells and claim the drilling process has made them sick. But as Reid Frazier of the public radio program the Allegheny Front reports, the evidence isn't conclusive.

PARE: So, how'd you do?

GIRL: Good.

PARE: Not too bad?


FRAZIER: Amy Pare is a plastic surgeon. She does lifts and tucks, and breast implants. Today she's taking sutures out of a patient who had a mole removed.

PARE: I may put a little bit of peroxide on there to dry it off a little bit.

FRAZIER: Cosmetic procedures like this patient's are Pare's specialty. So it's remarkable that she finds herself in the middle of a public health debate. It started about two years ago.

PARE: We started to have more patients that would have open areas or recalcitrant lesions, that bled, ulcerated, didn't quite heal. And usually they're on your face.

FRAZIER: Pare's first concern was skin cancer. So she took biopsies of the patients.

PARE: And when we would send them off to the lab, they wouldn't come back as a cancer but they wouldn't come back normal.

FRAZIER: On top of the skin problems, the patients had headaches and were acting lethargic.

PARE: And then we thought, 'Well, are these patients exposed to anything?' And so then we would ask the patients if they were exposed to anything at work or at home.

FRAZIER: It turned out many of these patients had one thing in common: they all lived near Marcellus Shale gas wells. Pare's practice is in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh, where over 500 wells have been drilled so far. Pare asked her patients to take a urine test.

PARE: Unfortunately, we did find quite a few people that did have urine that had methane in it, toluene, hippuric acid.

FRAZIER: All of which could have come from natural gas drilling. What to do about these patients and discerning whether gas drilling is indeed the culprit, is a question doctors and public health scientists are grappling with. Ralph Schmeltz is with the Pennsylvania Medical Society. It represents 18,000 doctors in the state. The group thinks fracking for Marcellus Shale could have public health impacts.

SCHMELTZ: But there's a lot that we don't know, and a lot we need to learn about exactly what they are.

FRAZIER: What he means is there's not much science yet that answers the question of whether fracking is safe. The industry says it is, and can point to reports by state governments in Texas and Pennsylvania that find no evidence that fracking pollutes groundwater. On the other hand, a growing number of case studies have documented people near gas wells getting sick.

But these studies are hardly definitive, says Jean Finkel. She's an epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

FINKEL: I am certainly not saying that these people don't have something wrong with them. I'm sure they do.

FRAZIER: The problem, she says, is that good old statistical axiom: correlation does not imply causation. That means that a headache could come from toxic fumes, but it could just as easily come from stress or some other factor. What's needed are long term studies that look at a variety of questions, Finkel says.

FINKEL: We have to look at biological plausibility, is the disease that we're seeing biologically plausible based on what we know about the potential compounds that are in the drilling process - and how strong is the association between exposure to risk and development of disease?

FRAZIER: Many are calling for the creation of a health registry for Marcellus Shale that would list people who say they've gotten sick from fracking. It would be used as a basis for future health risk studies. Last year state lawmakers earmarked two million dollars from the proposed Marcellus Shale impact fee to fund a registry. However, that money was stripped out of the bill before a final vote.

Even without impact fee funding, several shale-related health projects have sprouted in recent months. Among these efforts is the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.

RIPPEL: This is our resource that's going to be looking at gas drilling impacts.

Raina Rippel is the director of an environmental health project specifically designed to treat patients near wells. The Pennsylvania center is the first of its kind. (Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

FRAZIER: Raina Rippel runs the center. It's funded by philanthropies, including the Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front. The center opened in February in a suburban medical office building just south of Pittsburgh.

The office isn't much to look at, just a few plants and a TV in the waiting room. But the center is the first of its kind, a medical outreach program specifically designed to treat people near gas wells.

RIPPEL: We're going to the people who we believe have probably been impacted. So, you know, are these people who are in proximity to a gas-drilling site, or gas drilling activities? And are they experiencing significant health concerns? And we want to provide them with a response.

FRAZIER: Much of the response will be to refer patients to the appropriate physician. The center will compile patient information for scientists to study, but that's not the project's primary function.

RIPPEL: We're serving this population. We are not studying, we are not researching. That's not what we're doing.

June Chappel, of Hopewell Township, says fracking nearby made her sick. A frack pond behind her house, which has since been removed, 'smelled like a gas can.' (Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

FRAZIER: What it is doing is helping people like June Chappel. Chappel and a group of her neighbors in Hopewell Township in Washington County leased their land for drilling. The company they leased to, Range Resources, built an impoundment behind Chappel's house to store water produced from fracking. The water in ponds like this often contains chemicals used to break up the shale, as well as heavy metals and salts that it picks up underground. Chappel says when she came home, she could smell the pond even before she got to her house.

CHAPPEL: The only way I can explain it is, it smelled like if you were sitting inside your car with a gasoline can.

FRAZIER: At the time, Chappel's husband Dave was suffering from cancer. He began to develop nosebleeds. She thought they were from his chemotherapy. Then she started getting nosebleeds, too. Then, a ringing in her ears.

CHAPPEL: It almost sounds like when you go to, like, a real loud concert and you're there and then the next day your ears are just like (SHE MAKES A WHIRRING SOUND), that. That's what it sounds like, but this just never stops.

FRAZIER: Chappel complained to Range Resources. The company removed the frack pond. Matt Pitzarella, a Range spokesman, says the company probably shouldn't have put the impoundment so close to Chappel's house. He also said that any odors were probably due to stagnant water, not pollution. And he disputed the claim that the wells could have made Chappel sick. Chappel's husband, Dave, lost his fight with cancer two years ago. But she's now worried for her own health.

CHAPPEL: And I don't know what my health is going to be. You know, I was exposed to these chemicals for over a year. We had our windows open. I had like a blue film on my mirrors. You know, we were breathing this stuff in.

FRAZIER: In spite of reports from people like Chappel, some doctors think fracking is safe. Sean Porbin has a small practice in Avella, PA, in Washington County. The town is surrounded by wells.

Sean Porbin, a family care physician in Avella, Pa. thinks fracking is safe, and gives new hope to the old coal town. (Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

PORBIN: I've been looking for it for the past three years and I haven't seen a thing. I think the big story here is, so far is, with all the hype, is that there is no story.

FRAZIER: Porbin himself has leased gas rights to his property. He sees the gas rush as a boon to this old coal town. And he wonders if health complaints aren't driven by a profit motive. Porbin's also worried scientists looking for harmful impacts from fracking could find evidence of a problem where none actually exists. Still, he says, he'll keep his eyes open. He's signed on to work with the newly opened environmental health center.

PORBIN: The potential here is that everyone is supposed to win. The farmer's getting the royalties, the subway shops that are full at lunch, the little gas stations - everyone's winning here. And no one wants to see anyone get sick. You got to watch it though. And we are.

FRAZIER: Among those who figure to be winning and watching are Kathy and Guy Avolio. On a recent day, they took me to see the well Chesapeake drilled on their property three years ago. It sits on a large pad behind their home, on what had been a rolling hillside.


FRAZIER: The couple also live in Avella, on a 600-acre farm with a koi pond and a chicken coop. They have three kids. It's not a stretch to say the well has become almost another family member, complete with its own nickname.

Kathy and Guy Avolio, of Avella, Pa. say their Marcellus shale well is safe. (Photo: Reid R. Frazier/The Allegheny Front)

KATHY AVOLIO: The kids call it 'College!' They do. Our kids'll say, 'hey, that's 'College' out there.'

FRAZIER: Guy Avolio is an urgent care physician. He's heard and read reports of water contamination from fracking. But he's convinced that drilling is the right thing to do. He's very concerned about America's energy independence. The Avolios don't drink their well water, but they do have it tested every few months just in case. The water, says Kathy Avolio, is safe.

KATHY AVOLIO: I would never put my kids, no matter what price tag you put on it, would I ever put my kids in harm's way. But I also feel like my husband does, we have to try to get this. I mean, this is an incredible technology.

FRAZIER: Guy Avolio grew up in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, where his dad was a steelworker. He remembers when the mills were booming.

GUY AVOLIO: He always says, you know, the cars were dirty, the streets were dirty, but at least everybody had a job.

FRAZIER: The scene they see now in front of their house is one of economic prosperity. And their family is healthy. For the Avolios, the benefits of shale outweigh the risks, whatever they may be. For Living on Earth, I'm Reid Frazier.

CURWOOD: Our story on the suspected health effects of fracking comes to us by way of the Pennsylvania public radio program, The Allegheny Front.



Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project

The Allegheny Front


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