Debate Over Fracking and Public Health Gets Thorough Scientific Scrutiny

Joe Ryan, a professor in engineering at the University of Colorado who studies how drilling affects groundwater, is the lead researcher on a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how natural gas development affects communities from all angles: ecology, health, economics, even sociology.

The Colorado-based research group – the first of its kind – is bringing more than 40 experts together. The project grew out of a public demand for unbiased, trustworthy information about drilling.

As is, industry representatives will tell you that 99.5 percent of fracking fluid is just water and sand, and the rest is common household chemicals. To prove it’s safe, they’ll even drink it.

Anti-fracking activists pose with "fracking flavoured" water outside the European Parliament.

Greensefa / via Flickr

Anti-fracking activists, meanwhile, will tell you about the hundreds of dangerous-sounding chemicals used in fracking.

According to scientists, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

In addition to figuring out what aspects of drilling might harm people, the scientific collaboration – called Air Water Gas – also looks at the benefits of the natural gas industry. They are developing a research-driven decision matrix people can use to decide if the drilling industry is something they want in their community, and if so, how to regulate it.

To figure out which chemicals to worry about, Ryan looked at three main factors: toxicity, mobility, and persistence. That means how dangerous those chemicals are to humans, how likely they are to move through the soil and water, and how long they stay in the environment before they degrade.

Using those factors, Ryan said, “We take a list of 1,000 and get down to a list of a couple dozen,” Ryan said. “We should be watching for these chemicals, because they could actually show up somewhere.”

You can read Inside Energy’s full report on the fracking and public health debate here.

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