Skip to content Skip to footer

Warning: Fracking May Harm Public Health

Regulators should apply the same precautions to gas drilling that they use for everything else.

The Frack Oil Salesman, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

What do public health advocates like me tell people all the time? Get tested. Use protection.

In practice, that means we’re always explaining how everything from cancer screenings to immunizations to bike helmets can save lives.

The same logic ought to apply to natural gas drilling. Take what’s happening in Maryland, my state.

Until now, Maryland has banned the controversial gas-drilling process commonly known as “fracking.” That’s kept a portion of the Marcellus Shale formation — a gas-rich stretch of bedrock that stretches from New York State to Tennessee — off-limits to frackers.

Maryland was the only state to complete a public health study of the impacts of fracking before drilling. The participants found fracking to have a high or moderate likelihood of negative impacts in seven out of eight core areas — including air quality, water quality, occupational health, and earthquakes, among other things.

Before Election Day, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, had supported a moratorium on fracking in the state. After Republican Larry Hogan — who has publicly stated his support for drilling — pulled a surprise win in Maryland’s gubernatorial race, however, O’Malley switched gears.

The Frack Oil Salesman, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.The Frack Oil Salesman, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

A few weeks ago, O’Malley announced that he’s going to greenlight fracking before he steps down — as long as he’s satisfied that new regulations will mitigate risks to public health and the environment.

He claims that this approach maximizes chances that regulations might have some teeth. And based on how things are going in states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania, strict regulations for Maryland are a must.

Testing for baseline conditions before drilling begins, and ensuring adequate protections for people living nearby, must be central. Regulators should apply to fracking the same basic public health guidelines that they use for everything else: Get tested. Use protection.

Get tested: Maryland should collect and publicly report baseline air and water quality data before fracking begins.

Federal rules are so weak that the industry faces no national obligation to reveal which chemicals it uses in the fracking process. Yet many of the chemicals widely believed to be used, such formaldehyde and benzene, are known carcinogens that don’t belong in our air and water.

Unlike other states, which have allowed companies to keep this information secret, Maryland must require frackers to disclose this information if it’s to have a shot at monitoring water contamination, air pollution, and related health threats.

Use Protection: Frackers should locate well pads at least 1 kilometer (about 3,200 feet) from drinking water wells, residences, and schools. Right now, Maryland agencies are recommending only a 1,000-foot setback from schools.

Living, studying, or working within 1 kilometer of a fracking well pad increases the likelihood of water contamination and raises the risk of neural tube defects, congenital heart defects, low birth weight, and other health risks.

Maryland must also adopt stringent regulations to shield workers from silica dust, another known carcinogen.

And what about water contamination from leaking gas wells? Recent studies from Pennsylvania found an almost 8 percent failure rate for well casings, even after the state put regulations in place.

If all this sounds too hard for Maryland to accomplish without making its gas industry uncompetitive, that’s because it’s not clear that there is such a thing as “safe fracking.”

Instead of opening the door to fracking in their state, Maryland’s leaders should instead invest in an energy future rooted in renewable options. Generating wind and solar power will never endanger the health of the surrounding community the way that fracking for natural gas or oil will.

Maryland should follow New York State’s lead by keeping its moratorium in place until it can inform the public about exposure risks and take the steps required to protect people from fracking pollution. Otherwise, there’s no way for us all to get tested and use protection.