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Shale Gas Extraction Brings Local Health Impacts

WASHINGTON, Oct 18 2012 (IPS) - Shale gas extraction is putting some U.S. communities at risk of health issues, new research released here Thursday warns.

Close to 70 percent of participants in a new study reported an increase in throat irritation, and almost 80 percent stated they have had more sinus problems after being exposed to natural gas extraction in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.

“For too long, the oil and gas industry and state regulators have dismissed community members’ health complaints as ‘false’ or ‘anecdotal’,” said Nadia Steinzor, the project’s lead author. “With this research, they cannot credibly ignore communities any longer.”

The report, by Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, a non-profit environmental organisation, surveyed 108 residents in 14 Pennsylvania counties in addition to conducting air and water tests.

“Twenty-two households reported that pets and livestock began to have symptoms (such as seizures or losing hair) or suddenly fell ill and died after gas development began nearby,” Earthworks reported.

This report focused specifically on Marcellus Shale in central New York and Pennsylvania and the small communities affected by the extraction process.

“Though the areas studied in Pennsylvania are very rural and small, the process for all shale gas extraction is very similar and so it has the same potential impacts on any community,” Wilma Subra, the president of Subra Company, an environmental consulting firm, told IPS.

According to researchers, the results from the surveys constituted an obvious pattern of negative health symptoms due to the communities’ proximity to gas facilities.

This study compared domestic water samples from two counties to control groups by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The results showed a higher concentration ethylbenzene and xylene, volatile compounds found in petroleum hydrocarbons, at the households than the control site.

Overall, the participants reported a total of 24 health symptoms with a higher concentration and severity of symptoms closer to the gas development plants.

“For example, when facilities were 1500-4000 feet away, 27 percent reported throat irritation; this increased to 63 percent at 501-1500 feet, and 74 percent at less than 500 feet,” writes Steinzor.

Sixty-two percent of participants in the survey reported an increased sense of fatigue. The other highest percentage reported symptoms including sinus and respiratory problems (58 percent), and the survey also found a high level of behavioural and mood changes.

“The clear association between gas development and public health impacts revealed by this research demands that states stop ignoring the problem and start developing the standards necessary to protect the public,” Subra told IPS.

Shale gas, a natural gas trapped within shale formations, has been hailed by some as a potential solution to reconcile the issue of climate change and the growing need for energy resources.

It is widely believed that shale gas releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions then other fossil fuels, yet new technology has only recently provided the tools to begin extracting shale gas, led by U.S. companies.

“Broad development of shale gas resources — with proper ecological safeguards — could be the best way to achieve the quick cuts in carbon dioxide emissions that we need to maintain a habitable environment on Earth,” Alan Riley, a professor of energy law at City University London, wrote in August 2012.

Shale gas has become an important source of natural gas for the United States over the past decade, creating international interest in this new source of energy.

In 2010, shale gas provided over 20 percent of the United States’ natural gas production. By 2035, this figure is estimated to increase to 46 percent, according to the official figures.

Yet concerns about health problems – particularly extraction-related chemicals seeping into groundwater sources – have continued to increase, though these allegations have long been denied by the industry. Meanwhile, shale gas formations in other parts of the country are receiving increased attention for exploration.

The world’s largest and fastest growing economies are no strangers to the need for more energy sources. India and China each rely heavily on a constant supply of energy to fuel their booming economies.

China is estimated to have the world’s largest shale gas reserves, thought to be more than the U.S. and Canada combined.

“Both policy pronouncements and emerging investments into North American shale basins suggest that Chinese and Indian interests in exploring the potential of their shale gas resources are real,” wrote Jane Nakano in a recent report for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank.

Neither China nor India has yet begun to extract shale gas, but if they do the health impacts on the communities could be far worse those than the Pennsylvania data suggests. The counties surveyed in Pennsylvania are all in rural areas, but the majority of India and China’s shale gas reserves are very close to densely populated areas.

“The Chinese government notes that gas-rich regions in China are highly populated, rendering exploration there complex,” reports Nakano.

This immediacy to urban areas would inevitably increase the potential health effects that extracting shale gas could have.

“In fact, urban drilling would likely have a larger impact because with urban drilling you are basically in people’s backyards. As shown in the study, the closer you are to the process, the more impacts you will suffer,” Subra told IPS.

The U.S. State Department has launched a Global Shale Gas Initiative to transfer technical skills to other countries.

But, Subra points out, as long as the extraction process remains the same, then so do the potential consequences.

 
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