Fracking and Cancer


n 1794 Thomas Paine released The Age of Reason,  a call to abandon blind loyalty to institutionalized religion.The title of Paine’s work can also be applied to today’s fracking industry — in the age of cancer.

In 2012 alone there were 1,600,000 newly diagnosed cancer discoveries in the United States. Some 1,500 people die of cancer every day, according to the American Cancer Society.  It is the second leading cause of death in the United States — accounting for one of every four deaths.

Is this the time to proceed with the massive introduction of fracking into our society?



One in every three fracking operations in the US use known cancer-causing agents — this according to voluntary reporting by the natural gas industry itself. The three most common carcinogens, according to the industry, are napthalene, benzyl chloride, and formaldehyde.

In fact, nobody knows exactly which chemicals, or how much, are used in hydraulic fracturing operations. The industry fights hard to keep specific ingredients used in the process secret; there exists no uniform national disclosure law for fracking and, in one of the more extreme travesties of transgenerational justice in world, the process is exempt from most environmental oversight due to the 2004 “Halliburton Loophole,” enacted under the administration of President George W. Bush.

Further, the industry has lobbied, successfully, to ban doctors from discussing with their patients the links between symptoms and the chemicals used in fracking. The State of Pennsylvania forbids doctors from warning the community of water and air contaminants linked to fracking chemicals; indeed, The New England Journal of Medicine last year cited the fracking industry as “infringing on the patient-physician relationship”.

No less of a tree-hugging, liberal extremist group as Bloomberg Business News reported that “fracking secrets by the thousands keep US clueless on wells.”

To be fair, the industry does provide — on a voluntary basis — some information about the ingredients it uses to blow up the Earth’s bedrock formations hundreds of feet underground. It probably is quite happy, of course, that nobody ever hears about it — drowned out, certainly, by the noise made from its multi-million dollar TV ad campaigns and political contributions.

Still, a study of the SkyTruth Fracking Chemical Database (a voluntary industry self-reporting system) found 11,586 separate instances of recognized carcinogens used in hydraulic fracturing operations during the 20 months the database covers.

In addition to the three most common carcinogens mentioned earlier, other known carcinogens found in fracking include Toluene, Benzene, Lead, Crystalline Silica and Sulfuric Acid — and many more.

Studies which document the health hazards of fracking are increasing. One report, by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, predicts that ‘hundreds of tons’ of toxic chemicals from the fracking process would ‘likely’ be dispersed into the water supply.

Another recent study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSHA) found high levels of silica dust used in fracking operations. The study documented dangerously high levels of silica dust at 79% of all fracking sites tested.

Silica dust has plagued miners and construction workers throughout history.  It  causes silcosis — an incurable lung disease. Once contracted, people can live a few years or a few months,  according to the American Lung Association.

The study led OSHA to issue, in June 2012, an official “Hazard Alert” for workers at fracking sites.

The alert — seen here – provides clear information about the dangers of silicon dust in fracking, yet also reflects a continued hands-off, industry-friendly approach of the federal government towards the fracking industry. The alert offers suggestions for workers and industry to  ’minimize risks’  (including using alternative chemicals “when possible”) — while making no mention whatsoever of any potential regulatory action to either limit or restrict the use of this highly toxic substance in the first place.

This should come as no surprise, as the report and subsequent hazard alert were both produced in partnership with oil and gas industry leaders and trade associations.

Fracking has been associated with severe water contamination, toxic  and, due to the methane involved, as an important contributor to climate change. In an era of public health so consumed by cancer (annual cost is currently estimated at $200 billion), fracking’s relationship to cancer ought to be given greater public scrutiny in the ongoing debate.

Thomas Paine said “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” Fracking has already obtained significant wealth — and thus, some esteem — all very lightly, while the predictable leukemias, lymphomas, and lung cancers merit barely a whisper beyond a toothless alert penned in part by the very industry in question.

In today’s Age of Cancer, the Age of Reason merits another look.

Authors Note – the author, in addition to journalism, is a surgical technologist on the intra-operative nursing staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center New York.


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