After 18 months of research and analysis in Washington County, just south of Pittsburgh, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has released data on the health effects of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. These results conflict with industry statements that hydraulic fracturing poses no health threats to nearby residents. In other words, the report includes what some consider surprising conclusions about the controversial fracking process.

An array of symptoms found

The EHP group focused its research on residents who presented symptoms after natural gas drilling activity started and where there was a probable source of exposure and no underlying medical conditions. In total, 27 cases met their criteria: 13 cases of breathing problems, seven of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, and three of headaches and dizziness. The study determined that the skin issues were linked to water pollution, while all others were linked to air pollution.

The group reached some conclusions they weren't expecting. Because only the skin ailments could be attributed to water pollution, air pollution appears to be more of a threat to public health than water contamination. Additionally, processing stations that push natural gas into national pipelines were found to pose more of a health risk than drilling sites, because these stations handle much larger quantities of gas.

While these findings indicate some medical conditions may be associated with fracking, the study did not find health risks as severe or widespread as some environmental activists suggest. Additionally, it is unclear if all of the pollution measured can be attributed to natural gas drilling. Western Pennsylvania has a long history of coal mining, and old coal mines and oil wells have been identified as possible sources of methane gas in drinking water wells. Additionally, burning coal produces more carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions than natural gas.

Can fracking be cleaned up?

Natural gas will play a key role in Pennsylvania's sustainable energy future. The Marcellus Shale is an expansive reserve of natural gas now accessible through horizontal drilling and fracking technology. However, the process has come under great scrutiny for its perceived compromises of public and environmental health. To some, the biggest concern with the process is the significant level of methane, the main component of natural gas, that has been found in water and air near some fracking sites.

The current fracking process involves injecting massive amounts of water mixed with proprietary chemical solutions into the ground to release gas from rock formations. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 billion to 140 billion gallons of water were consumed to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States, and approximately 600 chemicals are used to create fracking fluids.

Many of these chemicals are known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, and several are known carcinogens. Opponents of fracking purport that lax regulations have resulted in these chemicals contaminating local drinking water and soil. These fears have spread throughout communities near natural gas drilling sites.

A 2012 analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the technology exists, or is in development, to ensure fracking is safer. Civil engineers have figured out how to better build and monitor gas wells, which could prevent water and air contamination in the extraction process. New technology is being developed to reduce the amount of pressure needed for fracking, which could make the drilling structures safer. There are also developments to better capture the powerful greenhouse gas methane before it enters the atmosphere. According to the MIT Review, methane leaks increase the greenhouse gas emissions of gas wells, which might actually negate the environmental benefit of using natural gas instead of coal.

According to the IEA's analysis, these changes are expected to increase costs by about 7%, but could reduce the amount of water needed and the risk of methane leaks. However, these industry changes are not likely to happen without governments enforcing stricter standards, the use of more advanced technology and increased transparency from drilling corporations.

Ultimately, these regulations could drive innovation and create demand for even more efficient, advanced drilling technology, making shale gas a more sustainable energy source.

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