Fracking, Shale Gas
and Health

Fracking and Health Awareness Project

Fracking our Food Supply


Elizabeth Royte’s in-depth article, Fracking our Food Supply, provides a look at farming troubles in fracking areas and the insights of  academic researchers into the potential impacts of fracking on farming and food. With few peer-reviewed articles published to date on this subject, Royce’s article provides a picture of what may be at stake in the short and long term.

Originally published in The Nation. Excerpts below.

“Ever since a heater-treater unit, which separates oil, gas and brine, blew out on a drill pad a half-mile upwind of Schilke’s ranch, her own creek has been clogged with scummy growth, and it regularly burps up methane. “No one can tell me what’s going on,” she says. But since the blowout, her creek has failed to freeze, despite temperatures of forty below. (Testing found sulfate levels of 4,000 parts per million: the EPA’s health goal for sulfate is 250 parts per million.)

Schilke’s troubles began in the summer of 2010, when a crew working at this site continued to force drilling fluid down a well that had sprung a leak. Soon, Schilke’s cattle were limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves; they lost from sixty to eighty pounds in a week; and their tails mysteriously dropped off. (Lab rats exposed to the carcinogen 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent used in fracking, have 
lost their tails, but a similar connection with cattle hasn’t been shown. In people, breathing, touching or consuming enough of the chemical can lead to pulmonary edema and coma.)

An inveterate label reader who obsessively tracks her animals’ nutritional intake, Schilke couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Neither could local veterinarians. She nursed individual cows for weeks and, with much sorrow, put a $5,000 bull out of its misery with a bullet. Upon examination, the animal’s liver was found to be full of tunnels and its lungs congested with pneumonia. Before the year was out, five cows had died, in addition to several cats and two dogs. (Hair testing of Schilke’s  cats and dogs revealed elevated selenium levels, while water tests showed sulfate at levels high enough, Schilke’s vet told her, to cause polio in cattle.) Inside Schilke’s house today, where the china cabinets are kept empty for fear of a shattering drill-site explosion, nearly a dozen cats sneeze and cough, some with their heads tilted at a creepy angle.

Before the drilling started, two cars a day traveled down Schilke’s gravel road. Now, it’s 300 trucks hauling sand, fresh water, wastewater, chemicals, drill cuttings and drilling equipment. Most of the tankers are placarded for hazardous or radioactive material.

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…  Clearly, the technology to extract gas from shale has advanced faster, and with a lot more public funding, than has the study of its various effects. To date, there have been no systematic, peer-reviewed, long-term studies of the health effects of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production (one short-term, peer-reviewed study found that fracking emissions may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for people living near drill sites). And the risks to food safety may be even more difficult to parse.

“Different plants take up different compounds,” says John Stolz, an environmental microbiologist at Duquesne University. For example, rice and potatoes take up arsenic from water, but tomatoes don’t. Sunflowers and rape take up uranium from soil, but it’s unknown if grasses do. “There are a variety of organic compounds, metals and radioactive material that are of human health concern when livestock meat or milk is ingested,” says Motoko Mukai, a veterinary toxicologist at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine. These “compounds accumulate in the fat and are excreted into milk. Some compounds are persistent and do not get metabolized easily.”

Veterinarians don’t know how long the chemicals may remain in animals, and the Food Safety Inspection Service, part of the US Department of Agriculture, isn’t looking for them in carcasses. Inspectors in slaughterhouses examine organs only if they look diseased. “It’s gross appearance, not microscopic,” Bamberger says of the inspections—which means that animals either tainted or sickened by those chemicals could enter the food chain undetected.

“The USDA focuses mostly on pathogens and pesticide residues,” says Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for Food and Water Watch. “We need to do risk assessments for these fracking chemicals and study tolerance levels.” The process, he adds, could take more than five years. In the meantime, fractivists are passing around a food-pyramid chart that depicts chemicals moving from plants into animals, from animals into people, and from people into… zombies.

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… The relatively small number of animals reported sick or dead invites the question: If oil and gas operations are so risky, why aren’t there more cases? There likely are, but few scientists are looking for them. (“Who’s got the money to study this?” Colborn asks rhetorically.) Rural vets won’t speak up for fear of retaliation. And farmers aren’t talking for myriad reasons: some receive royalty checks from the energy companies (either by choice or because the previous landowner leased their farm’s mineral rights); some have signed nondisclosure agreements after receiving a financial settlement; and some are in active litigation. Some farmers fear retribution from community members with leases; 
others don’t want to fall afoul of “food disparagement” laws 
or get sued by an oil company for defamation (as happened with one Texan after video of his flame-spouting garden hose was posted on the Internet. The oil company won; the 
homeowner is appealing).

And many would simply rather not know what’s going on. “It takes a long time to build up a herd’s reputation,” says rancher Dennis Bauste, of Trenton Lake, North Dakota. “I’m gonna sell my calves, and I don’t want them to be labeled as tainted. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to test for. Until there’s a big wipeout, a major problem, we’re not gonna hear much about this.” Ceylon Feiring, an area vet, concurs. “We’re just waiting for a wreck to happen with someone’s cattle,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s just one-offs”—a sick cow here and a dead goat there, easy for regulators, vets and even farmers to shrug off.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association takes no position on fracking, nor has it heard from members either concerned by or in favor of the process. And yet it’s ranchers and farmers—many of them industry-supporting conservatives—who are, increasingly, telling their stories to the media and risking all. These are the people who have watched helplessly as their livestock suffer and die. “It’s not our breeding or nutrition destroying these animals,” Schilke says, her voice rising in anger. “It’s the oilfield industry.”

excerpted from Fracking our Food Supply by Elizabeth Royte, November 28, 2012, The Nation

Full article here.

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