Red and white trucks flank a tall drilling well pictured against the sky

Trying to measure fracking's toll on human health

The fracking boom has transformed large swaths of rural America, turning towns from idyllic to industrial and threatening the physical and mental health of many inhabitants.

Living on Earth

Work continues at a shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary's, Pennsylvanina, March 12, 2020. The fracking process has raised environmental concerns while turning the state into a major energy producer.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File photo

In 2019, environmental reporter Kristina Marusic tested five different Pennsylvania families for 40 different chemicals associated with fracking and found that every person studied was carrying a massive chemical body burden.

Marusic wrote about the test results, and the families whose lives have been upended by their local fracking operations, in a four-part series for Environmental Health News.

During fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a cocktail of toxic chemicals and water is injected into bedrock to create cracks through which oil and natural gas can be extracted. The chemicals that each company uses are proprietary information, not available to the communities where fracking occurs. But the water, air and people can be sampled to get a sense of which chemicals are present.

In addition to water and air testing, Marusic took urine samples from five families over the course of nine weeks during the summer of 2019. Each of the families had at least one child in the home. Marusic sent the samples to the University of Missouri for analysis and compared the chemical body burden for each of the families living near fracking, with the national average.

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The results showed very high levels for many of the 40 chemicals and chemical breakdown products they tested for, including benzene, styrene and toluene. In some of the children tested, they found chemical levels more than 90 times higher than the national average, higher even than an adult smoker.

When the Bower-Bjornson family got the results of the study, they were “pretty shocked to see, in particular, that the kids had some of these really high levels of exposures,” Marusic said.

Lois and Dave Bower-Bjornson had moved from Pittsburgh to a home in Washington County, out in the countryside, in search of more space and a more peaceful lifestyle. “[They] saw this beautiful home listed that had a barn on the property and was kind of in the middle of the country, and they just fell in love with the idea of raising their kids somewhere so idyllic,” Marusic said.

Within a few years of moving there, the fracking boom started and wells started to move in. At first, they weren't overly concerned, Marusic said. But pretty quickly, their idyllic country lifestyle started to change drastically.

"The wells were close enough to their house that they could hear the drilling, they could smell the drilling, they could see flaring, like these huge flames licking into the air at night."

Kristina Marusic, Environmental Health News

“All of a sudden, the small two-lane road that's right in front of their house was inundated with heavy truck traffic,” Marusic said. “There were dozens of huge trucks going by every day. The wells were close enough to their house that they could hear the drilling, they could smell the drilling, they could see flaring, like these huge flames licking into the air at night. One of their four children, Gunnar, started getting nosebleeds pretty regularly and they worried that it might be related to emissions from fracking.”

The Bower-Bjornsons became increasingly frustrated. Their beautiful country property was suddenly in the middle of a heavy industrial zone, which wasn't what they had signed up for, Marusic said. At this point, they lived within five miles of 25 active fracking wells.

When Marusic shared the test results with the family, Lois said, “Unless we move, there's no escaping this for us. We're completely surrounded by wells on all sides.”

“Even when the kids go to school or to a friend's house, unless they're leaving the state, they're still going to be near a fracking well,” Marusic said. “So, they just feel kind of inundated and overwhelmed by the industry.”

In addition to physical health problems, a number of studies have found that people who live close to a high volumes of fracking wells are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping, Marusic adds.

“Some of the reasons they found are, like I described with the Bower-Bjornson [family], a sense of loss that the place that they lived has been transformed from somewhere rural and quiet and peaceful into a heavy industrial zone,” she said. “Other reasons are worry and stress over the environmental impacts and the potential health impacts of fracking, and a sense of distress … and alienation that happens.”

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Another family Marusic tested described difficult experiences within their community and with other families who didn’t take their struggles seriously.

A toxicologist had found that one of this family’s children, Lexy, had been exposed to benzene. The doctor suggested that the course of treatment was to remove her from the source of exposure, which they believed was her school.

“So, it's a single grandmother raising Lexy and her brother and she was just like, ‘What am I supposed to do? Do I pull them out of school? Do we move?’ Her toxicologist at the time said [Lexy] likely had a particular sensitivity to benzene,” Marusic said.

Fellow classmates taunted Lexy, saying things like, “Are you just making this all up? Are you lying? My mom says you're lying about this to get attention. The rest of us would all be sick if this was really happening, so how come you're the only one sick?”

On a couple of occasions, her friends’ parents wouldn't stop to grill her about it: “Tell the truth,” they would say. “Are you making this up? Are you really sick?”

Eventually, the family moved because they felt so ostracized by the community.

“They had moved when we did our testing and, unfortunately, we still found evidence that Lexy was being exposed to benzene,” Marusic said. “So they were left feeling really frustrated. Lexy, in particular, reported a lot of mental health impacts as a result of this. She developed anxiety; she got depressed because she felt like there was nothing that they could do about this.”

Other families reported their frustration dealing with state agencies they had turned to for help. Brian Latkanich, for example, a single dad with a son named Ryan, invited a fracking company to drill a well on their property early on in the boom, around 2011. 

“Soon after the well went in, Brian and Ryan both started experiencing a whole slew of health problems — things like nosebleeds, rashes, trouble breathing, eye irritation,” Marusic said. “They've both had some pretty severe stomach problems.”

Ryan was nine years old at the time Marusic did her testing. He had a level of hippuric acid — a biomarker for toluene — in his urine was more than 91 times as high as the US median. A couple of years after the wells had been drilled, Ryan came out of the bathtub one day with sores all over his body, Marusic said. That was the beginning of Brian's experience trying to work with state agencies in Pennsylvania.

The Latkanich’s have a private water well. After numerous tests, the State Department of Environmental Protection told Brian his water was too contaminated to drink, but that the department didn't believe the fracking company was to blame — or, at least, they couldn't prove definitively that it was to blame.

RelatedFracking often gets blamed for water problems, but it's not a clear-cut case

This meant that the fracking company wasn't required to provide the Latkanich’s with clean water. So Brian had to start buying bottled water to drink. But they still had to bathe in contaminated water, which, obviously was a concern, Marusic said.

Latkanich contacted the State Department of Health, who advised him that if they were concerned, they should shower elsewhere. The department recommended they go to the nearest YMCA, 30 minutes away, to shower.

“[Brian Latkanich] was expecting to get huge amounts of money from this. And instead, it turned out to be not a whole lot. He is disabled and on a fixed income, so he feels that he can't afford to move. He feels stuck there.” 

Kristina Marusic, Environmental Health News

On top of all of this, the royalties from allowing the fracking company to drill on their land were also much smaller than Brian had been led to believe, Marusic added. “He was expecting to get huge amounts of money from this. And instead, it turned out to be not a whole lot. He is disabled and on a fixed income, so he feels that he can't afford to move. He feels stuck there.”

And despite the fact that Brian’s well water was fine prior to the fracking well going in, and then suddenly becoming too toxic for the family to drink or bathe in after fracking began, the State Department of Environmental Protection determined that the fracking company was not responsible.

This happens a lot, said Marusic. A report in the newspaper "Public Herald" looked at all of the water complaints related to fracking in the state and found that more than 90% of the time, when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigated, they ruled that a fracking company could not be held liable for water contamination.

Across Pennsylvania, thousands of families have had their water contaminated near the drilled fracking wells, so, many of them believe the wells have something to do with it. But the state DEP is telling them otherwise.

Fracking is relatively unregulated at the federal level, Marusic noted, and the state departments that oversee and regulate the industry are often underfunded.

“So, it might not necessarily be any kind of nefarious collusion with oil and gas, but it might just be a lack of resources,” Marusic suggested. “And that's something that I heard from a lot of these families — that they just felt that they weren't getting answers and they weren't getting help.”

"[W]hat I found in this investigation should serve as a wake-up call about the need to better understand whether fracking chemicals are getting into the air or water or bodies of people who are living near wells.”

Kristina Marusic, Environmental Health News

“I hope that having these test results will empower [the families] to be able to better advocate for their health, for the health of their kids, and for the safety of their communities,” Marusic said. “I think the first next step is for someone to do similar research on a much larger scale. But I also think that what I found in this investigation should serve as a wake-up call about the need to better understand whether fracking chemicals are getting into the air or water or bodies of people who are living near wells.”

“I also think it's not partisan to say that we're opposed to children being poisoned,” Marusic added. “I think this testing that we did clearly shows the need for more careful oversight of this industry and for better systems in place to help serve these families, who just feel like they're being put in harm's way and no one is there to help them or look out for them.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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