Special issue of journal looks at fracking's effects on people, animals

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On February 18, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, announced that natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania had broken another record, exceeding 4 trillion cubic feet in 2014. “That number – nearly 1 trillion cubic feet more than 2013 – represents more than a quarter of the nation’s total natural gas production,” the coalition said, adding that more than 243,000 Pennsylvanians were “working across the industry.”

Today, a scientific journal devotes an entire issue to a gloomier topic: the public health impacts of all that fracking. It’s a subject the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News explored in great detail in their joint 2014 project, “Big Oil, Bad Air.” The 20-month investigation, which included a 15-minute online documentary by The Weather Channel, described toxic air emissions, health problems and lax regulation in areas of heavy drilling, notably the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas.

The peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Science and Health published eight articles in an issue it calls “Facing the Challenges—Research on Shale Gas Extraction.” Among other things, the researchers found that fracking may be polluting Pennsylvania streams with mercury; that dogs – good "health sentinels” for human effects – have gotten sick near drilling sites; and that “extreme exposures” to volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogen benzene, can be expected during several stages of gas production and processing.

The special issue’s editor, John Stolz, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the papers – outgrowths of a 2013 conference – should trigger additional studies.

Fracking is “not the traditional mom-and-pop drilling” and “could be considered a heavy industrial process,” Stolz said, indicating a need for careful siting of drilling rigs and other polluting facilities near residential areas.

“We’re not against the industry. That’s not the point,” Stolz said. “There are things related to this industry that have to be addressed. Let’s do it soberly and with eyes wide open.”

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