Fracking’s health impacts must be addressed

An oil derrick at work in Kern County, 2013. (Photo: Christopher Halloran)

Faced with the decision of whether or not hydraulic fracturing (fracking) should be approved in New York, the state’s Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker publicly asked, “Would I let my family live in a community with fracking? The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”

Last week, California’s new Director of Public Health and State Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith took office. Health professionals across the state hope that she will also put the health of our families ahead of continued extreme energy extraction.

As a nurse, I understand the health risks posed by oil production in our state, and it could potentially lead to a public health crisis.

For too long, California’s regulators have largely ignored health concerns associated with fracking and other forms of extreme well stimulation. As the evidence of health impacts continues to build, we need new leadership to change that.

For example, new regulations developed under the mandate of Senate Bill 4 (Senator Fran Pavley’s 2013 bill to regulate fracking) will go into effect this July.  Yet, both the required Environmental Impact Report and required independent scientific assessment—including health and environmental risks—will not be completed until the regulations are already in effect.  In other words, the very real concerns raised by public health professionals will not be considered by the final rules that are designed to protect Californians from fracking.

We need our Department of Public Health (CDPH) to lead the conversation before we move forward with implementing new regulations that are missing the facts.  Dr. Smith must insist that the state’s public health experts be involved in this process.

As a nurse, I understand the health risks posed by oil production in our state, and it could potentially lead to a public health crisis.

A Natural Resources Defense Council report in California found some 5.4 million people (14 percent of the state’s population) live within a mile of at least one of the state’s total of 84,000 oil and gas wells.  Research shows that proximity to oil and gas operations is a major risk factor for respiratory illness such as asthma and obstructive pulmonary disease.  In a state that already struggles with the significant health effects of poor air quality, we simply cannot justify the expansion of a practice that would lead to an increase in respiratory diseases.

Meanwhile, toxic wastewater has been illegally injected into hundreds of wells and may have polluted protected aquifers. Wastewater has also been dumped into unlined ponds and left to leach into soil and groundwater.  These disclosures underscore the astonishing inability of the State’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to protect the public from grossly polluting activities of the industry.  The widespread contamination of ground and surface water at a time of historic drought may potentiate a public health disaster.

With both a medical degree and a master’s of public health, Dr. Smith is uniquely qualified to address the threats posed by fracking.  She has been quoted as saying, “Decisions that are going to be made that affect people’s lives are best made taking into account what those people also want.”  We call on Dr. Smith and the CDPH to honor the rapidly growing public concerns about the health impacts of fracking and step in to protect Californians where other agencies have failed to do so.

Health professionals across California are renewing our call for a moratorium on fracking and other unconventional well stimulation technologies until the health impacts are fully understood. We believe there is no better person to lead this effort than the woman charged with protecting Californians’ health.

Ed’s Note:  Viki Chaudrue, a registered nurse with a doctoral degree in education, is a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. She serves full-time on the faculty of  Mendocino College,  and teaches part-time at the San Francisco State University School of Nursing.

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