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The Bucket Brigade and Peer Review
A Physician Diagnoses Fracking
Q&A with David Carpenter

My name is David Carpenter. I'm a public health physician at the University at Albany SUNY. I direct the Institute for Health in the Environment.

How did you become involved in the Bucket Brigade’s study on air pollution and fracking?

The group approached me for assistance in doing the statistical analysis of their data, writing up the publication and having it published. There are three groups of people involved in this study. First, there are those who organize people at a community level. Secondly, people at the community level living next to fracking sites or compressor stations, whose everyday lives are being affected by their environment. What the Bucket Brigade did was mobilize these individuals to take samples that could be analyzed. But they didn't have the experience that I have in analysis of the data, and getting it published in a peer reviewed journal, which is group number 3. Having the peer reviewed publication is sort of the good housekeeping seal of legitimacy for a study.

In your view, what is “citizen science”?

Citizen science is science that is done by people that usually do not have doctorate degrees. In this case, it’s done by people that are affected personally by some factor in their environment posing threats to their health. Sometimes it means mobilizing for governmental change. I think this has been a major evolution in our understanding, and it's a major evolution of the federal government, as well. It is very important that citizens be involved in scientific endeavor, for a variety of reasons.

It's usually the individuals that live near a dangerous site: they could be the ones that are most affected. They usually are aware of the problems that they're being exposed to in a way that no academic scientist would even necessarily know about. Therefore, they're the ones that reach out and develop these collaborations. A lot of science isn't done that way, it’s done by the investigators saying, "There's a contaminated site, I want to go study it." Often without the involvement of communities. I've learned that that is much less productive than working with the community, particularly working with a community that searches out investigators for collaboration.

Could you explain what fracking is? What’s so bad about it?

Fracking has been done for a long time. In the past, we had vertical fracking. Basically you dig a hole down into the ground, apply water and sand at high pressure, then break open the shale containing natural gas. What's changed in the last few years is unconventional oil and gas exploration, or hydro-fracking. This is a process of drilling down very far, usually a mile or more. Then drilling sideways and injecting, at very high pressure, water containing a variety of chemicals, usually containing sand so that when the shale is fractured the natural gas can flow out.

It has dramatically changed the profile of energy production here in the US, and actually around the world. Natural gas is a valuable fossil fuel, it is less polluting than coal and we suddenly have a great abundance of it. The downside is that many of the chemicals being used, many of them not even identified publicly-may be contaminating groundwater. The shale deposits are much deeper than the groundwater, but you still have to drill through the subsurface where water is contained. There is also a significant release of volatile organic chemicals into the air. Natural gas is primarily methane, an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas. It's much more potent than carbon dioxide, and an enormous amount of methane is escaping.

What do you think people should know about fracking?

The reason people think that fracking is good, particularly if they own the land, is they think they're going to get rich. It actually comes at a great price. In the first place, these fracking wells don't produce for very long. When the companies come in and drill these wells, they put in lots of infrastructure, and that's not going to go away anytime soon. They are going to have a lot of traffic on the roads with big trucks. There's going to be lights and noise 24/7 during the time that the wells are operating. While the people that own the land maybe make enough money so that they can move away, the real problem is the people who live nearby that don't own the land, don't get wealthy from this, and they are stuck there. They’re breathing the air that's highly contaminated, listening to the noise, kept awake by the lights, worried about their health and particularly their family’s health.

I have talked with many people who have been so frustrated, angry, and upset that their whole way of life has changed almost immediately in ways they've had no control over because of fracking that happens not on their own land, but on land near their homes. People whose children become ill. One of the questions of course is, to what degree are these illnesses caused by the chemicals or to what degree are they caused by the anxiety and fear that results? There are certainly psychological concerns, but I think the more that I've been involved in the study of the levels of exposure, the more I see that, yes, these are dangerous exposures that have caused acute illnesses, mainly respiratory. There’s a potential for increases in cancer; you have benzine, formaldehyde, ethylbenzene, all these known human carcinogens that are being inhaled on a continuous basis.

Tell us about the study you did with the Bucket Brigade?

The fracking study was done in 5 states, and in each of those 5 states we took samples from a variety of sites. It was a relatively small study, it had minimal funding and almost all of it was used to do the chemical analysis. The team went into each of these areas and found local residents that live near fracking wells or compressor stations. They provided a container for collecting an air sample, and a formaldehyde badge to be put on a tree or a fencepost. Those individuals were instructed to take a sample when there was a smell, when they felt particularly ill, or when there was an obvious release. The samples that we took were analyzed for the volatile organics, which includes methane and benzene, 65 or so chemicals in total. We analyzed for sulfur compounds, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and formaldehyde.

What we found was that 60% of the samples did not exceed any federal guidelines. That is to say 40% of them did, and we used two federal standards. We used the EPA Iris values, which is a cancer guideline, and we used the ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), part of CDC. We found that many of the samples exceeded those standards: for benzene it was something like 10,000 times exceeded. What’s interesting was that the air pollutants at compressor stations were even worse than the fracking wells. Our concern is there will be a long term increase in the risk of cancer, not just among the residents but also workers at these sites.

At the levels of air pollutants that we found in our study there are acute and chronic risks. The acute risks are primarily respiratory effects, sinus problems, sore throat, coughs, aggravation of asthma and also central nervous system effects. Many of these compounds are neurotoxins; hydrogen sulfide particularly. Also volatile organics, which at high concentrations can actually cause coma, but at lower concentrations they tend to reduce brain function. People complain of their brain not working very well. They can't remember as well as they used to. The biggest long term effect is cancer. Several of these chemicals are known human carcinogens. There is some possibility that there are also long term detrimental effects on brain function, but certainly the documentation is strong that these cause cancers and that cancer is going to increase many years after exposure.

What are the health impacts of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and formaldehyde?

At the concentrations we've found around these fracking sites, people would complain that they smelled the hydrogen sulfide, and then it sort of went away. It's probably certain that the hydrogen sulfide didn't go away, they just acclimated to the odor. People felt their brain wasn't working properly. It's our suspicion that this a result of the hydrogen sulfide.

Benzene doesn't have that much of an odor. Every time we fill up our gas tanks we’re exposed to benzene, it’s a normal component of gasoline. Benzene is not known to be particularly damaging to the respiratory system, but as we breath it in, it's broken down by the liver and the products of its degradation are what increases the risk of cancer. That's very well understood. If you're living near a fracking well where the benzene that's in natural gas is escaping and you're breathing it continuously, you're going to dramatically increase your risk of cancer, especially leukemia.

Formaldehyde is embalming fluid, it’s a very simple substance. It's actually formed by sunlight acting on methane, but it is known to cause respiratory effects. It’s a known trigger for asthma attacks and a known human carcinogen. Formaldehyde is extremely dangerous because it has these effects on multiple organ systems, both acute and long term chronic effects, especially cancer.

Is the oil and gas industry, as it’s operated right now, a public health issue?

Oil and gas extraction, as it's currently done in the US, is a threat to the health of the public. It increases air pollutants, and causes water contamination. The issue here is balancing society’s demand for fossil fuels against hazards to health and safety. From my perspective, we must ultimately get away from the use of fossil fuels. The effects on climate are the most dramatic example. It's clearly the biggest challenge of our generation. Unfortunately, we're not going to solve that problem rapidly. We need to move to renewable energy, but we can't just stop today with the extraction and use of fossil fuels. In the meantime, we need to use fossil fuels more safely, prevent releases of the methane into the environment. However, in the process of extracting natural gas, we're allowing all of this to escape. It's not to the benefit of the companies to lose all this natural gas, so there must be technology that can prevent the escape of benzene, formaldehyde, and methane.

What’s the role of ordinary citizens in science? Why should non-academics get involved?

From my perspective, the role of the ordinary citizen in the scientific process is to work with the scientific community to help the academics understand what are the concerns that ordinary people have. There are many academics who would love to find partnerships with people in communities where there are threats to their health. In fact, it's increasingly difficult for academics to work on problems of environmental contamination or even social problems without having the connection to the ordinary people in the community. It benefits everybody.

Citizens do not want to be treated as guinea pigs. They do not want to be treated as though they're inferior, that they don't have knowledge. They have a very different kind of knowledge: the problem is that many academics don't understand that. The knowledge that people in these communities have is not the same as someone who went to college or graduate school. But it can be more relevant to solving problems than most academics realize. For example, take people who live around fracking wells. They’re aware that they're sick, their children have runny noses all the time and they're not doing well in school. But they may not have any understanding of the reasons why. The more knowledge they have, the better their understanding of why they're sick. The better their understanding will be of how they can take steps to reduce their exposure.

Should citizens be watchdogs of industry?

Truly, the government should be protecting us. People seem to think that the government is protecting us. Unfortunately, that is just not the case. Government is a political entity. It is very influenced by money. Where does that money come? Corporations and wealthy people who often are not the ones concerned about the hazardous chemicals on your city block. The question is, is it appropriate for ordinary citizens to raise the flag and say, "I got a problem that needs to be addressed." In my mind it's absolutely critical that they do that because if we wait for government, it will never get done.

I can cite many examples in my own experience where some of the worst sites around the country got no attention by government at all because of the power of the industry that operated the site. And the willingness of governments to not rock the boat because of the economic impact of that particular industry. I think many of our federal standards are inadequate to protect public health. I have the highest regard for many of our federal and state civil servants. I was one myself for years. But they work in a political system, which is not appropriately sensitive to threats of public health. There is an obligation by individuals to raise issues because if they don't, no one else will.

We have a moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable people among us. When people talk about “vulnerable,” they usually think it's children and old people. But there's an enormous vulnerability of people who just don't have the resources that others have. The disparity between the rich and the poor. The poor are disproportionately those people living around these fracking wells where they can't do anything to reduce their exposure, to escape from a threat to their health and the health of their family. Everybody has a moral responsibility for those people as well as others that are subjected to environmental factors that the more affluent are not.