Fracking water

Recycled fracking water is shown in the various stages from finished to beginning on land owned by Fasken Oil and Ranch near Midland, Texas, on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Water Rescue Services treats the water to recycle it for reuse for Fasken Oil and Ranch. (Vernon Bryant/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

Community residents raised concerns about potential health impacts of unconventional natural gas-drilling methods in a study co-authored by a University of Cincinnati assistant professor at the College of Medicine.

Erin Haynes, an associate professor in the environmental health department, has spent over 10 years working with rural Ohio communities to better understand their health concerns,

including those raised by fracking. In September, Haynes and other authors published “Health impacts of unconventional natural gas development,” a comparative assessment of communities considering and implementing fracking.

Unconventional natural gas-drilling refers to the process of shale gas extraction that includes horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas.

Residents in Ohio, where fracking is rapidly expanding, asked Haynes to help address their concerns about unconventional natural gas drilling in their community.

Fracking is the process of injecting pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground to bring up natural gas from shale formations deep in the ground.

The study revealed a number of public health concerns from three states — Ohio, New York and North Carolina — that are each in different stages of natural gas extraction development. 

New York has suspended its fracking development to study health and environmental impacts, and North Carolina is still under debate on whether or not to start fracking.

“Research is sorely needed, and Ohio is ripe for such environmental epidemiologic studies,” Haynes said. “Ohio is a beautiful state, and we could be one of the first states to pro-actively study exposures associated with the fracking process. This information would be helpful to inform other states considering fracking and how to protect our own state and its residents.”

Haynes worked on the project with Sarah Elam, the program coordinator for the Community Outreach and Engagement Core at UC, for nearly two years.

Haynes and two authors who come from the University of Rochester and the University of North Carolina conducted in-depth interviews with 48 “informed residents,” which included government, business and community leaders and landowners, educators and environmental activists, in the three states.

The interviewees represented diverse roles in the community and varied opinions on unconventional natural gas development.

The most common concerns the residents raised were: water quality and quantity problems, negative impacts on air quality, lack of information about the chemicals used by drilling companies, lowering quality of life, increased economic issues, burdens on public health and health care systems and unequal health and economic impacts depending on socioeconomic status. 

“Many scientists, including myself, are concerned that an increasing reliance on natural gas for energy will cause more leakage of methane to the atmosphere,” said Amy Townsend-Small, an assistant professor of geology at UC.

Townsend-Small and Haynes have worked together to collect information from groundwater wells near fracking sites in Carroll County, Ohio, for an ongoing project to monitor water quality.

“Despite these issues, I do think that natural gas has more environmental benefits than coal, which is the source of most of our electrical energy in the Cincinnati area,” Townsend-Small said. “If scientists can study the process of fracking to make sure it is done safely, it could help with a lot of environmental health problems.”

Interviewees noted that they had difficulty finding unbiased sources of information on the potential health impact of natural gas development, and Haynes agreed that there is very little peer-reviewed research about health exposures related to fracking. 

“There are no fracking sites in the Cincinnati area, and there never will be,” Townsend-Small said. “But these regional energy issues affect us all. Our industries and government need input from everyone to help reduce the impact of energy production on Ohio natural resources.”