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Fracking: a serious but still underestimated threat to public health

Environmental health scientist and acclaimed author Dr. Sandra Steingraber was in Brussels to share scientific evidence from the US on health impacts of shale gas drilling. She called to stop fracking on health grounds in Europe.

During Dr. Steingraber’s visit she spoke at the EU Commission’s Green Week ‘New Environmentalism Summit’ as well as giving a special lecture at HEAL’s office. Her presentations were based on a recent letter signed by over 250 US physicians, health organisations and scientists, which summarises the major trends in emerging peer-reviewed evidence on the health effects of fracking. The letter was sent to New York State Governor Cuomo calling for the establishment of a formal 3-5 year moratorium on fracking.

Dr. Steingraber, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York and science advisor for Americans Against Fracking, said that because of the complex nature and expense of implementing rigorous regulation of the shale gas industry, a moratorium on fracking, as exists in New York, is the only option for Europe. HEAL advocates for this moratorium in the individual EU Member States, and is concerned about the threat to public health from US-EU trade negotiations.

During her presentation at HEAL’s office which gathered a full room of public health and environmental groups, NGOs, journalists and EU institution representatives, Sandra Steingraber focused on the impact of fracking on health and the environment such as illnesses, physiological effects, air pollution, contamination of water supplies, and agricultural pollution. She also highlighted concerns about risks due to earthquakes, accidents and even terrorism.

One of the big concerns she highlighted from the US experience of fracking is the contamination of drinking water, which may contain traces of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and radioactive substances. “Fracking destroys water”, Steingraber explained, because the shale gas extraction process as such involves injecting chemicals mixed into water, sand or gravel. Yet, if there is a small crack in the cement of the drilled wells, groundwater can be contaminated with chemical and radioactive substances. Dr. Steingraber reported that about 6 to 7 percent of freshly cemented wells are leaking, with EDCs and other harmful substances being released into the water.

She also explained about the impacts of fracking on the air we breathe. Various studies show that air quality in rural areas of the US, where fracking takes place, can be worse than air quality in urban areas. Chemical indoor pollution, caused by fracking, has also been found in children’s bedrooms in US fracking areas. Science indicates that those air pollutants can have serious effects on rates of childhood asthma, low birth weight, stroke and heart attacks.

Steingraber drew attention to the threat to public health from fracking in the context of the ongoing US-EU trade talks, which could make it easier for foreign companies to sue countries in the EU that have banned fracking.

HEAL has an ongoing programme of sharing information on shale gas fracturing with public health experts and health groups, working closely with Dr. Steingraber and US and European groups. The aim is to provide European policy makers with evidence from the health sector of harm to health associated with fracking.

Here is more about Dr Steingraber’s visit and her lectures on public health and fracking:

Originally posted on 26 June 2014

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The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) is a leading European not-for-profit organisation addressing how the environment affects health in the European Union (EU). We demonstrate how policy changes can help protect health and enhance people’s quality of life. Read more »


HEAL has over 70 member organisations, representing health professionals, not-for-profit health insurers, doctors, nurses, cancer and asthma groups, citizens, women’s groups, youth groups, environmental NGOs, scientists and public health institutes. Members include international and Europe-wide organisations, as well as national and local groups. Read more »

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