|Preventing the Preventable Suffering by The Science and Environmental Health Network|
Table of Contents
1. Editor’s Note: On Preventing the Preventable Suffering
2. The Fracking Science Compendium: Eighth Edition
3. Toxicology: The Language of Hazardous and Broken Dreams …
Editor’s Note: On Preventing the Preventable Suffering
Friends, A remarkable achievement of science over the past 25 years is hard evidence that much of human suffering can be prevented. For example, thirteen years ago, SEHN’s science director, Dr. Ted Schettler co-authored a volume entitled Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging. The authors showed that the risk of key diseases of old age, including Alzheimers and Parkinsons, was substantially reduced in people with lower exposures to a variety of environmental chemicals and pollutants. Ted’s report has unfortunately been validated by many newer studies, including a number showing that exposure to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion is consistently linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. And, as I was writing this, another study was published concluding that “Elderly people living near or downwind from unconventional oil and gas wells such as fracking sites are more likely to die prematurely.”
We have a moral duty to prevent the preventable suffering. Where do we start in fulfilling that duty? Consider the fact that fires, floods and hurricanes, birth defects, cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease are often caused by or made worse by some form of fossil fuel extraction, burning or use. Fossil fuels are made into toxic chemicals, including plastics, that contaminate our food and water. Climate change magnifies ordinary weather events into monstrous storms or fires.
In a remarkable Atlantic essay SEHN board member Rebecca Altman says:
“But plastics and climate aren’t separate issues. They are structurally linked problems, and also mutually compounding, with plastics’ facilities spewing climate-relevant emissions and extreme weather further dispersing plastic into the environment. Research is under way to study their interaction—the way, say, thermal stress affects how species respond to toxic exposures. But they have the same root.”
Years ago, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, then a SEHN board member, determined that fracked fossil fuels are the common root of the twin scourges of toxic chemicals and climate change. If we could end fracking then we would end the litany of suffering that is caused by those fossil fuels.
In this issue of the Networker, we tell two stories about scientists who are working to prevent the preventable suffering.
In the first essay, Sandra and Carmi Orenstein, co-authors of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (the Compendium), document how they use the science on the health effects of fracking to support grassroots groups that work to obtain bans and moratoriums on fossil fuel extraction. All the evidence shows that the fossil fuel industry has fundamentally altered the Earth’s chemistry, causing extraordinary human health problems and wreaking climate havoc. Sandra and Carmi first gathered other medical professionals and scientists to review and report the early data on fracking in 2012, and have continued this work as the number of studies—and the evidence for harm—grew dramatically. A new edition of the Compendium will be released soon, and we are taking this opportunity to look back at how science can influence policy and guide action. “Policy” and “action” are dry words but the right policies and actions can lead to lower rates of asthma, less contaminated water, a sporting chance at a stable climate. Health and well-being are anything but dry, as those in the path of the fracking industry have, regrettably, come to know.
In our second story, Dr. Steven Gilbert, recognizing the suffering caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, describes toxicology as the language of hazardous and broken dreams. His book A Small Dose of Toxicology equips the layperson with the keys to understanding toxic chemicals and how they affect living things. If you are curious about the chemicals you or your family are exposed to, Steve’s book will help you make sense of this complex field and take action to avoid harm.
Maybe these issues strike close to home for you. They do for me. This week authorities said the drinking water of my town in Iowa has “forever chemicals” – toxic chemicals that are used in household goods, fracking and fire suppression. Chemicals that are known to cause cancer, immune problems, liver damage and more. Chemicals that shatter dreams.
What do we learn from the two books featured here? It doesn’t have to be this way. We can prevent a litany of suffering.
The Fracking Science Compendium: Eighth Edition By Carmi Orenstein, MPH and Sandra Steingraber, PhD
The more we learn about fracking—that set of destructive extraction methods used to force hydrocarbon bubbles trapped inside deep rock layers to rise to the surface—the worse it looks.
Ever-expanding evidence documents fracking’s harm to human health, ecological systems, and the climate itself. Methane, which leaks at every stage of oil and gas extraction, is at least 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 20-year period and is a more powerful agent of climate destruction than had been previously appreciated. Equally alarming, as revealed by isotopic analysis and evermore accurate satellite monitoring, the North American fracking boom is driving an ongoing, accelerating surge of methane into the global atmosphere at emission rates far greater in magnitude than previously understood. Fracking is a villain, not a hero, in the story of the climate crisis.
A recent report from the United Nations itself warns us that these emissions must be stopped in order to stabilize our climate system. Reigning in carbon dioxide alone is not sufficient to avert runaway calamity; methane emissions must also be apprehended. And yet the shale and gas industry continues to ramp up operations in the United States, nearly unabated, and is now apparently on track in 2022 to have its “strongest year-over-year gain since 2006.” That is to say, only one year after the COVID-19 pandemic slashed global oil and gas demand and tanked profits, fracking is poised for a comeback. The shale gas and oil industry has stepped up its propaganda machine—greenwashing its processes and products; fighting municipal and now even statewide initiatives to ban new gas hookups; and promoting false solutions like carbon capture, utilization and storage—with far too much help from some elected officials and even current federal policy.
In sum, the United States (minus a few states) fracks on.
But as co-authors of seven editions of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking, we view this difficult and complex reality from an historical vantage point, one that shows how science can work hand-in-hand with grassroots citizen movements to ban fracking. It’s this view that propels us forward to the report’s eighth edition, to be released in a few weeks.
In this new edition, we reflect on our own victorious origin story, rooted in New York’s successful campaign to ban fracking statewide, which began in earnest a decade ago. Responding to the public’s need at that time to understand the risks to water, air, public health and climate stability that it was being asked to assume, Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY) came together in 2012. Our purpose was to gather existing scientific evidence on the harms of fracking and translate these findings into plain language for those in frontline communities, county and state legislators, and journalists. Almost concurrent with our second edition, released on December 17, 2014, the New York State Department of Health released its own review of the public health impacts of fracking, announcing a statewide ban on the same day.
Far from being inclined to disband after this hard-won and remarkable victory, CHPNY went on to support impacted frontline communities and shale gas regions under threat everywhere. And we became a franchise. Consulting with us and with our blessings, “Concerned Health Professionals of…” groups formed in Ireland, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. We have been thrilled to celebrate statewide bans in Maryland, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon, as well as a ban on fracking in the Delaware River Watershed.
Yet fracking and other extreme methods of shale gas and oil exploitation continue to roll out in states across Appalachia, in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, California, and elsewhere. In addition, we know that New York State is still heavily dependent on fracked gas, despite its own ban on fracking itself. As we write, the European Union is inexplicably considering including natural gas projects in its draft energy taxonomy for sustainable investment. The work of the Compendium is in demand, as various U.S., Canadian, Mexican, and overseas policies and trade deals enable fracking and its entire chain of harm.
These policies and facts on the ground—and our ongoing commitment to amplify good science and to support those working to reduce harm and toward a sane energy system—have only energized us to continue to grow this project. Frontline activists worldwide tell us it makes a difference. We have seen the Compendium inform the climate justice movement, helping individuals and organizations frame and inform their various campaigns to prevent, resist, or shut down public health- and climate-ravaging drilling and fracking operations, pipelines, and fracked-gas power plants. We value each engagement with CHPNY and the Compendium, whether the result is an individual’s public comment submission, testimony at a hearing, a fully referenced Op-ed— or the Compendium’s contribution to paradigm-changing legislation such as setback requirements, moratoria, or bans.
WHERE DOES THE WORD COMPENDIUM COME FROM?
The word compendium comes from a medieval Latin word that means “to weigh together” and refers to a publication that gathers, considers, and compares a variety of individual works and presents them in their totality. CHPNY’s Compendium is an open-access, fully referenced compilation of evidence on the risks and harms of fracking and its infrastructure. We use the term “fracking” to encompass a range of activities and ancillary infrastructure both before and after the actual fracturing stage and include research and investigation into all these areas. The Compendium weighs together these findings from the published literature—from scientists, physicians, investigative journalists, government agencies, including those from technical and sometimes obscure sources—and identifies emerging trends in the data. With the coming edition reaching over 500 pages, the Compendium is indeed weighty, but it is also fully searchable and freely available and downloadable on our website. The Spanish translations—available through the sixth edition thanks to the Heinrich Böll Foundation— expands its accessibility, better enabling use in California’s San Joaquin Valley and South Los Angeles, in Mexico and Argentina.
The Compendium on the world stage and at home, 2015 through the present. One year after our New York State ban, the third edition of the Compendium became the basis of invited testimony within the Paris Climate Change Conference, COP21, which produced the Paris Agreement. Our fourth edition Compendium was released in November 2016, just as the Paris Agreement went into force and as several new studies conclusively demonstrated that expansion of shale gas and oil extraction was incompatible with climate stability and the goal of rapid decarbonization that it requires. All together, these data showed that because of increasing emissions of methane, the United States was on track to miss its pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent by 2025. The evidence showed that methane leaks from U.S. oil and gas operations were significantly higher than previously estimated, as were U.S. methane emissions overall.
The fifth and sixth editions, released in March 2018 and June 2019 respectively, were both launched in a time of deep environmental retrenchment by the federal government. The Trump administration had announced an era of “energy dominance” based on surging domestic production of oil and natural gas, most of it extracted via fracking. The White House declared its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and did so. Among the more than 100 federal environmental regulations rescinded during this period were many that governed drilling and fracking operations.
By September 2018, the United States had become the world’s leading oil and gas producer, surpassing both Russia and Saudi Arabia. By 2019, aggressive attacks on regulatory oversight of U.S. oil and gas extraction had extended to the science underlying the targeted regulations. Unimpeded by federal regulations and driven by fracking, U.S. oil and gas production reached record levels and spurred a massive build-out of fracking infrastructure, leading to large-scale industrialization in formerly rural areas and densely populated communities alike.
The seventh edition, launched in December 2020, appeared at a time of significant economic downturn and disruption within the gas and oil industry as the ongoing pandemic crashed prices. The economic instabilities of fossil fuel extraction are well-known to researchers, with findings across various disciplines—economics, education, social welfare—documenting the damage to communities whose fates became linked to the fracking industry. The social effects of the fracking industry—housing crises; impacts on school, emergency, and other municipal budgets; road damage; sex trafficking and increases in violent crime—are closely related to public health, and their documentation in the Compendium helps provide the full picture of harm.
The forthcoming eighth edition arrives in a period of conflicting trends and incompatible dynamics within the energy industry both in the United States and abroad. Among them:
-the indisputable and ever-expanding evidence that the fracking boom is responsible for an ongoing surge of global methane emissions even as the oil and gas industry maintains its grip on energy, climate, and environmental policy;
-the favorable economics of renewable energy even as the federal government continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry’s practices;
-public hunger for clean residential and transportation energy, and obstacles strewn in its way.
-surging global demand for natural gas—with the United States now poised to surpass Australia and Qatar as the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas—even as the United Nations makes clear that expansion of natural gas infrastructure and usage is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5° C and even as Germany declares 2035 as its phase-out date for gas plants.
The eighth edition of the Compendium will shine a spotlight on the environmental injustices of fracking. CHPNY is pleased to be part of a groundswell of attention to the grave injustices suffered by BIPOC and impoverished rural and urban communities that find themselves the paths of the fracking industry. From disproportionate harm to babies born to Latina mothers living near Texas fracking wells to the clear evidence of toxic exposures among Indigenous pregnant women living near fracking sites in British Columbia, scientists are documenting frightening evidence of harm to vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. We now have a much fuller picture of these patterns and trends, well known to those on the ground who are witnessing and experiencing the recklessness of this industry. We are tracking studies that document the siting of fracking wells near daycare centers; clusters of rare cancers among children, teenagers, and young adults living in shale gas regions; and elevated rates of asthma in poor urban areas that serve as involuntary hosts of drilling and fracking operations. The Compendium project aims to assist all those in need of easy access to, and non-technical summaries of, this body of research. We continuously seek to expand the scope and usefulness of the Compendium as a resource for those fighting for corrections to these injustices.
CONTINUING OUR PARTNERSHIP WITH PHYSICIANS FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY, SETTLING INTO SEHN
We are proud that the release of the eighth edition of the Compendium will take place in the first year in which CHPNY resides within SEHN. The Compendium will now carry SEHN’s logo along with that of CHPNY and its long-time partner in this work, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the renowned organization working to create a healthy, just, and peaceful world through their impactful work on climate, toxic chemicals, fossil fuels, and the abolition of nuclear weapons. PSR staff and members serve as peer-reviewers for the Compendium, and they partner in outreach and use, convening dozens of educational programs yearly based on each edition, and otherwise using it broadly as a tool for influencing policy.
With the coming compilation—and emboldened by SEHN’s longstanding commitment of service to communities, the Earth, and future generations—the CHPNY compendium project rededicates itself to the task of tipping the balance away from the wide and destructive path of fracking toward climate-preserving, health-protective energy systems based on science and environmental justice.
Tell us how we can help you use the Compendium toward those ends and watch on social media for our rollout of freely available graphics based on our latest findings! As a comprehensive summary of the science, the fracking compendium may indeed serve as a weighty doorstop, but, along with all the footnotes, we provide key bullet points and visual images for public education and grassroots advocacy efforts.
Refer also to:
Flares in Frac Land, NEBC, Canada
A decade of science on frac harms – Compendium 7 released: “The data continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks” while regulators in Canada continue to DEregulate to enable the endless **known** harms. Canadian frac-harmed Vicky Simlik: “Because there is no such thing as a kind & gentle frac’ it needs to be banned period.”