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Ban fracking, O'Malley [Commentary]

The medical and scientific community was relieved when Gov. Martin O'Malley imposed a moratorium on fracking in 2011. He said that the state would only move forward with fracking if it "can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources." And now that the public health study he commissioned returned results showing fracking falls far short of this admirable standard, he needs to stick to his word, listen to the science and say no to fracking.

The public health review conducted by the Maryland School of Public Health has one clear message: There would be significant negative public health effects if fracking is allowed in our state.

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From a public health perspective, the science is decisive that fracking — an unconventional method of oil and gas drilling that involves injecting toxic chemicals, fresh water and sand into rock to release oil and gas — poses a broad range of dangers. It is not covered by provisions of the most important federal laws protecting our environment and public health including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The study from Governor O'Malley's own commission determined that fracking poses a high or moderately high likelihood of negative public health impacts in seven of eight key research areas, including air quality, water quality, worker health and cumulative effects, among others.

In spite of this, alarmingly, the commission recommended regulations and monitoring systems for moving forward with fracking, even though the study itself explicitly stated that regulations would not be able to minimize many risks. Indeed, most of the recommendations were for monitoring health impacts; they would not prevent them. In the medical field, that's akin to human experimentation without informed consent, and it's downright unethical.

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The trends in the science on fracking are cause for more concern. New studies showing harms of fracking are published nearly every week. For example, in September, scientists at Yale University released a study that linked proximity to drilling and fracking sites in Pennsylvania with a host of negative health effects. Another study published in September by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that workers at fracking sites are routinely exposed to high levels of benzene, a dangerous chemical that can cause cancer.

Across the country, states where fracking occurs are discovering more health and environmental problems. One striking example is that the state of Pennsylvania recently released details of 243 confirmed cases of water contamination, an increasingly common problem that research indicates is linked to inherent flaws in the drilling and fracking technology with cracking and crumbling cement and well casing integrity failures.

The Maryland health study and the significant and growing body of independent science raise grave concerns about the impacts of fracking on our health, our water and our air. If Governor O'Malley allows fracking in our state, Maryland citizens will be part of a de facto and extremely dangerous public health experiment.

It's incumbent upon Governor O'Malley to keep to his 2011 promise only to allow fracking if it could be done "without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts." The science makes it clear that the governor's standard simply cannot be met.

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As Governor O'Malley's time in office winds down, I urge him to leave a legacy of protecting the health and wellbeing of his constituents.

Mr. Governor, do what's right for Maryland and enact a ban on fracking in our state.

Dr. Robert Lawrence is the director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future and a professor of environmental health sciences at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. His email is rlawren1@jhu.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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