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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

By Lisa Song and Jim Morris, InsideClimate News

A new study has underscored just how little is known about the health consequences of the natural gas boom that began a decade ago, when advances in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling allowed companies to tap shale deposits across the United States.

“Despite broad public concern, no comprehensive population-based studies of the public health effects of (unconventional natural gas) operations exist,” concluded the report published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Last week, InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel reported on the health data gap in the Eagle Ford Shale, where a lack of air monitoring and research is aggravated by a Texas regulatory system that often protects the gas and oil industry over the public.

Scientists interviewed for the series said the uncertainties persist across the country. In the words of one expert, scientists “really haven’t the foggiest idea” how shale development impacts public health.

Gas and oil production releases many toxic chemicals into the air and water, including carcinogens like benzene and respiratory hazards like hydrogen sulfide. While residents near drilling areas in Texas reported symptoms that are known to be caused by these chemicals, including migraines and breathing problems, it was impossible to link them to the drilling boom because no studies could be found that prove cause and effect.

The new study, led by John Adgate at the Colorado School of Public Health, examined available research on the environmental, social and psychological impacts of shale gas drilling. It was the first time anyone had tried to tackle the question in a systematic way, Adgate said.

The researchers found that much of the existing work “isn’t explicitly tied to health.” Many studies analyzed the level of pollutants in the air or water, but didn’t track how the exposures are connected to local health trends. Other studies used health surveys, but didn’t compare the respondents’ results with the health of the larger surrounding community.

What’s needed, Adgate said, are comprehensive studies that examine possible connections between chemical exposures and community health trends. But these types of studies require substantial funding and good baseline data, both of which are hard to obtain.