Frack Attack: The Impacts and Response to Fracking Damage

During the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate, when asked about fracking, Senator Kamala Harris attested that the Biden Administration would not ban fracking. Her statement led to a lot of pushback from both sides of the political spectrum, with conservatives claiming Former Vice President Joe Biden will dent the fracking industry with his climate reform plans and the progressives demanding a firmer stance on fracking. The conversation around fracking has always been surrounded by confusion, primarily because scientists around the United States, due to Fracking being a relatively new phenomenon, struggle with measuring the long-term effects of hydraulic well drilling on local inhabitants, bodies of water, and drill workers. However, the wide range of physical and mental health problems in the areas where fracking takes place reveals that legislators must take action to mitigate the pernicious effects of fracking.

The most concerning issues with fracking are related to the younger inhabitants of areas with hydraulic wells. According to statistics collected from Pennsylvania, a state with many fracking wells, there is a negative impact on infant health due to exposure to pollution from fracking. Living less than 3 kilometers from hydraulic wells was associated with adverse effects on neonatal health, such as birth weight and decreased infant health index. There was a 25% increase in the probability of low birth weight (birth weight < 2500 g). Additionally, there was a reduction by 0.054 to the infant health index (a comparison of infant health across a large, populated area).

Drilling for natural gas affects not only infant health but also the health of other inhabitants. A 2014 study done by the Natural Resources Defense Council indicates that there are ENT (Ears, Nose, Throat), neural, and carcinogenic concerns are associated with living near wells. The study analyzed data from the FracFocus database and concluded that “1.2 billion pounds of petroleum distillates, which can irritate the throat, lungs, and eyes; cause dizziness and nausea; and can include toxic and cancer-causing agents” are released near fracking sites. These emissions can lead to respiratory issues such as permanent lung damage from cilia and asthma from Sulfur dioxide. Adults with prior respiratory problems, seniors, and children are especially vulnerable to these pollutants. Additionally, 10% of the chemicals used in the fracking procedure are associated with negative health outcomes, such as an increase in carcinogenic activity and increased toxicity of bone marrow. 

Fracking is not only damaging to local populations, but it also impacts those who work at the wells. Most of these workers are mobile, moving around from place to place. Due to this, there are not a lot of support systems in place to help injured workers. Overall, those who work at hydraulic wells have major injury rates “2.5 times higher than the accident-prone construction sector and more than 8 times higher than the industrial sector as a whole.” This places a lot of mental and physical strain on injured workers. 

While many of the physical damages caused by fracking are recorded and studied in-depth, there are also many immeasurable psychological issues. For example, the noise caused by drilling decreases the quality of life in fracking-adjacent neighborhoods. Additional stressors include, but are not limited to, light pollution, stress due to the polarizing political views, and a decrease in air quality. The short-term economic boom in fracking areas is generally followed by economic busts, leading to financial and economic stressors. A more long-term psychological issue is tied to the pollutants released due to fracking. Some of these materials are neurotoxins, leading to long-term psychological problems in some people. 

Despite the evidence on the detrimental effects of fracking on communities living adjacent to drill sites, the attention given to fracking has declined over the years. The National Institute of Environmental Health Services’ states that research is underway to determine whether or not hydraulic fracturing poses health risks to the people living near drilling sites.  However, much of this research took place in 2014, and there aren’t many new studies being done to measure the impact of fracking. 

Adding to the decrease in research on fracking is the political turmoil surrounding the issue. So far, there has not been a consensus on what to do to help communities impacted by fracking, and neither is there a push to study and collect data about hydraulic well-drilling. The main issue is that fracking creates a massive economic boom, making it difficult to investigate and propose solutions to mitigate its damage. It is, essentially, an economic boom and an environmental bust. Additionally, due to the natural resources industry chasing after drilling for natural gas, many other enrichment sources have been abandoned. 

Overall, there has not been a proper consensus nor legitimate solutions proposed to address the numerous issues surrounding fracking. Legislators and large data collection agencies must push forward and conduct more studies and pass more legislation to help the communities negatively affected by hydraulic wells. Potential solutions may include investing more money in alternative forms of energy, increasing restriction on pollutants released from fracking, and better compensation for workers injured or sick due to drilling for natural gas. An extra effort must be put out to show that fracking is a problem beyond politics and not a problem beyond repair.