Fracking and LNG Projects: What is really at stake for our long term health?

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The WoodFibre LNG in Squamish has received environmental approval from the federal government. A preliminary project configuration shows the proposed plant on Howe Sound, BC. Image courtesy of Woodfibre LNG (as published in the Vancouver Observer)

(Published in the Vancouver Observer, May 4th, 2016)

In March 2016, the Woodfibre Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) processing project was approved, granted with some conditions.There is a great deal of worry from scientists about the health implications of LNG projects in B.C.

Sound science from the Pembina Institute and many academic sources say that this project, and the Lelu Island Pacific NW LNGproject are not good investments for BC, either for reasons ofhabitat destruction, or for the fact that they could possibly represent a large chunk of the BC 2050 carbon budget, making it very hard to meet our targets.

We can easily argue the health impacts of climate change, be they the thawing of ice roads that bring food and supplies to Northern communities or increased heatwaves which the Canadian Health atlas predicts will increasingly cause heat related deaths, or moreinsect borne disease, or even threats to food security.

Some would claim that LNG is a cleaner burning transition fuel than coal, which may be the case; however, whether LNG is actually less GHG intensive from extraction to burning isextremely controversial.

I would argue, however, that talking about individual projects is part of a larger conversation; another extremely important issue much upstream of actually burning the LNG is how it is obtained in the first place: hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

In order to extract the rather harmless sounding Liquefied Natural Gas, companies must use huge quantities of water, millions of gallons which can never be returned to the water table.

In a warming world with increased droughts and worries about salmon having enough water to get upstream, do we really want to be taking water out of circulation?

The water is mixed with all sorts of chemicals that need not be disclosed, including chemicals like benzene, which is a cancer causing agent with no safe human exposure limit.

The health-related impacts of some of the chemicals used in fracking have been found to cause problems for the lungs, digestion tract, skin, brain, immune system, hormones, and reproductive organs, among other negative impacts on humans, pets, cattle, and wildlife species.

During the fracking process, water containing a variety of chemicals and sand is injected into the ground at high power to create fractures to release the trapped gas and bring it up to the surface.

Oil and gas extraction has been done for decades using vertical drilling however, horizontal drilling at the intensity it is being ramped up to has been used for a relatively short time, meaning the local people and the health officials have very little data to work with to understand the health implications.

The majority of the health reports we have on fracking highlight that we simply do not know enough to do it on such a large scale.

However, in recent years reports are accumulating suggesting serious health impacts for populations in the areas where fracking takes place; in BC, this is largely the northeastern area of the province, principally Treaty Eight territory.

According to studies recent studies by Yale University of the potentially over 1000 compounds used in fracking, about 70% cannot be identified; in other words, only 30% have some known information about their human health implications.

Some of these chemicals are more likely to stay in the fracking water or leach into the ground water, and many of the chemicals used are more likely to vaporize and get into the airshed.

Of those identified, around 37% are classified as endocrine disruptors, meaning they can act like or interfere with hormones; hormones control everything from growth and development to brain function and fertility and act at the parts per trillion level (a drop in 20 Olympic size swimming pools).

Recent information from studies of the ground and surface waterin the highly fracked areas of Colorado showed contamination of water with chemicals that mimic and/or hinder both male and female hormones.

Importantly, a review of literature by Dr. Ellen Webb of the Centre for Environmental Health in New York warns of the developmental and reproductive risks associated with chemicals used in fracking; toluene exposure may cause reduced fertility, particles in the air associated with gas development are associated with premature birth and low birth weight.

Moreover, researchers at Yale have found that of the relatively low number of compounds (240) for which there was information, about 103 were associated with reproductive toxicity, 95 with developmental toxicity, and 41 were both.

It is important to note that even when we have information on these chemicals, there is still little understanding of how they work together in complex environments.

Further, another study which look at over 124 000 people showed that expectant mothers living within 10 miles of a natural gas well were more likely to have defects including heart and neural defects.

Long term perspectives of high intensity oil and a gas development in Texas find an association between air pollution in these regions, including benzene levels, and childhood cancers.

Because children are more susceptible to hormone disruption before and after birth, high density fracking in Northern B.C. is worrying for the health and development of those populations. It is too early to make direct links of cause, but as evidence accumulates, shouldn’t we be taking the precautionary principle?

If an activity has suspected harmful consequences, providing proof that it is safe should fall on companies.

In B.C., disposal of waste water used from fracking, which can contain natural occurring radioactive material, cancer-causing chemicals, and toxic metals like lead and arsenic, is usually disposed of by injecting it into old wells.

The University of Victoria Environmental Law program says regulations are very weak. Monitoring of contaminated waste water is not required, nor is baseline analysis of surface water before a project nor does B.C. seem to require much monitoring of the workings of fracking projects, which is extremely worrying.

In Pennsylvania, fracking chemicals have been detected in drinking water by scientists at Pennsylvania State University; these researchers believe the contamination comes from either leaking containment facilities or faulty well components. In B.C., we don’t know what is going on.

A statement from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment declares “Due to significant air and water quality issues, contribution to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions, and documented and anecdotal evidence of health effects to humans and animals living near fracking wells, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment recommends an immediate moratorium on fracking in Canada…”

Whether the impact of single LNG plant projects can be justified or not, we simply do not know enough about the long term consequences of fracking on human health to expand it in BC until industry, supported by independent academic science, can prove it to be safe.

The evidence strongly suggests harmful health impacts, especially on younger populations. Do we want to be running large scale science experiments on the people of B.C.?

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