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The hidden health risks of fracking

Imagine you are a nurse working in an emergency room, and a worker on a gas fracking well comes in covered in chemicals used in the drilling process. You call the gas company to find out what chemicals are being used to help in your assessment of possible health risks to your patient, and even yourself, but find out they don't have to disclose this information. Or, imagine you are a public health nurse in a community with many natural gas fracking wells, and you notice complaints of well-water contamination. How can you assess the extent of the issue without baseline data on water quality or knowledge of the chemicals used in the fracking process?

As nurses, we strongly support our right to know in order to protect the health of our communities and the environment. That's why the American Nurses Association House of Delegates last month passed a resolution highlighting the important role nurses play in advocating for the health of their patients and communities when faced with fracking. As the number of natural-gas fracking wells has increased exponentially over the past 20 years, the public's right to know what chemicals are used in this process has become imperative to protect the public health. Fracking chemicals now being found in our water supplies have been linked to cancer and kidney, liver and neurological damage. Nurses working in rural areas are also describing how the quality of life in rural communities is being destroyed by drilling, well operations and truck traffic associated with fracking.

Because fracking is fairly new in many areas, statutory or regulatory processes have not adequately ensured health and environmental safety. In areas where fracking is taking place, the public is looking to nurses and other health care providers for answers. However, health care workers do not have access to vital chemical information.

A new report evaluating how states are dealing with fracking concludes that "no state is requiring enough upfront collection of baseline data and ongoing monitoring of drilling operations to ensure adequate protection of local water supplies and public health."

The report, "The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect" from OMB Watch, a government accountability group, outlines what an effective fracking disclosure policy would look like:

•Before receiving a drilling permit, the owners and operators of natural-gas wells should gather baseline information on nearby water sources and agree to regularly monitor water and air quality. This is a pretty basic way of making sure natural-gas drilling is safe.

•Information on chemicals used in fracking should be specific enough that scientists, health care providers and citizens know what to test for and can keep up to date on evidence about the health effects of different chemicals — as in, which ones cause cancer or other serious health problems.

•States should not allow gas companies to claim blanket "trade secret" exemptions to avoid releasing chemical information. This loophole hampers the ability of health care professionals to monitor for exposures and health effects. If it doesn't get fixed, then companies can claim any chemical is a trade secret, and disclosure becomes a farce. Pepsi and Coke publish the ingredients in their products on every can; the producers of fracking chemicals can do the same without revealing exact formulas that would put a company at a competitive disadvantage. Companies don't want to disclose the chemicals because they know the substances are dangerous, and the industry knows the public would want to stop their use.

•Finally, the report recommends that all this information be posted on a public website that is easy for average people to use and understand.

Gov.Martin O'Malleylast year ordered a study of the impact of fracking. Any conclusions reached must include a demand for better disclosure and oversight policies. We have a right to know what's in the ground and in our water, and state government has a responsibility to protect us.

There may soon be a number of gas wells operating in Maryland, and we need to be prepared. By instituting these common sense policies, Maryland has a chance to protect children, families, communities and our environment from harmful chemicals before fracking begins.

Katie Huffling is director of programs with the Baltimore-based Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. "The Right to Know, the Responsibility to Protect" is available at http://www.ombwatch.org/naturalgasfrackingdisclosure.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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