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Investigating fracking becomes business of its own

Millions of dollars spent researching health concerns surrounding process

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The nation's fracking boom is fueling more than just economies.

The practice and its potential effects on public health are quickly becoming one of the most widely researched topics in America, as leading academics, well-respected health care companies, state and local governments, and many others are examining whether the drilling method can lead -- or, some believe, has led -- to serious health problems.

Millions of dollars already have been spent, and much more soon will be dumped into a litany of studies looking at fracking's impact on water and air quality and at possible links to cancer and other diseases.

The industry argues that there are no such links; indeed, studies have shown little or no health risks or effects related to fracking. But other reports have claimed the opposite.

Many analysts believe there simply hasn't been enough research to draw firm conclusions.

"There's a lot of rhetoric on both sides. You can only get at the truth if you base it on sound science, and that's where the problem is. There's very little sound science" on the subject, said Trevor Penning, head of the University of Pennsylvania's Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.

Mr. Penning and colleagues at the University of Texas, Harvard University and other institutions are seeking funding from the federal government to help gather that science. The center already has begun a health survey of residents in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region, home to one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world and an area where fracking is widely employed.

Governments and leading medical companies are tackling the same questions.

Across the border in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has once again delayed a decision whether to allow fracking in his state, this time citing the need for more public-health research.

Earlier this week, Pennsylvania's Geisinger Health System received a $1 million grant to help fund what it's calling "the first large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment of the health effects of natural gas production."

"The establishment of reliable and valid data regarding the potential health impacts of Marcellus Shale gas drilling is essential for informed policy decisions," said Glenn D. Steele Jr., the company's president and CEO.

The grant was awarded by the Degenstein Foundation, a philanthropic project founded by the late Charles Degenstein. The foundation funds projects in the Keystone State and lists among its goals the "conservation of nature resources and protection of the environment."

But it's unlikely that the Geisinger study will close the book on fracking and public health. One need only look to two recent Colorado surveys to see how researchers with similar objectives can come to wildly different conclusions.

Last year, the Colorado School of Public Health, comprised of faculty and analysts from leading universities in the state, released a report alleging that air emissions from fracking sites may be partly to blame for acute health problems.

But just last week, a report commissioned by the Erie, Colo., Board of Trustees and based on air samplings by the state's Department of Public Health and Environment found that the risk of human health problems caused by those emissions is low.

"You see anecdotal claims that natural gas development has a public health impact, but most of those claims have been refuted by investigations by state or federal regulatory agencies," said John Krohn, a spokesman with Energy in Depth, a public outreach campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Mr. Krohn argues that opponents of fossil-fuel use will use the public health argument -- or whatever other argument seems best at the time -- to discredit fracking.

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