Health Problems from Fracking Lead to Call For Monitoring By Medical Community: JAMA Editorial

Some doctors are warning the medical community that it needs to pay closer attention to hydraulic fracturing and the potential health risks that may come with the controversial gas mining technique. 

Doctors Russell A. Wilke and Jerome W. Freeman, of the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine published an editorial this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which warns that hydraulic fracturing continues to expand amid growing concerns over air quality problems and potential water pollution and toxic exposure.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is a term used to define the drilling and fracturing of shale rock to release oil and gas. Fracking involves the injection of water, sand and chemicals into wells at high pressures, to crack the surrounding rock, thus releasing the natural gas underground and allowing it to flow to the head of the well.

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Problems from fracking have previously been linked to negative environmental effects to the surrounding communities, due the impact on drinking water, as well as increased dust and exhaust from drilling rigs, compressors and the transportation of the water, sand and chemicals. The process has also been linked to increased earthquake activity. The extent of the potential harm to humans living close to these fracking sites has yet to be determined.

On issues of air quality, Wilke and Freeman note that some communities near heavy fracking operations have seen a link between well production rates and asthma exacerbations. They also note that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is raising concerns about airborne silica at fracking sites, which could cause long-term respiratory effects.

Those silicates are also a concern in fracking fluid and potential toxic exposures and water contamination. Those fluids also often contain acids and surfactants which may be toxic to humans.

“Given the large volume of flowback generated by fracking, water quality requires ongoing monitoring,” the doctors warned. “Cross-contamination between fracking flowback and drinking water must be avoided. More than 10% of the US population obtains drinking water from nonpublic water supplies, including private water wells that supply drinking water to a residence.”

Last year, the EPA issued a report on the impact of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on drinking water, finding that gas mining operations can and have polluted water supplies, although the agency could not quantify the frequency or severity of those incidents.

Wilke and Freeman noted the EPA report, and said that using drinking water for fracking fluid should be minimized. They also warned that spills during management of fracking fluids should be avoided, as well as injection of fracking fluids into wells with inadequate mechanical integrity or directly into groundwater. They also warned against discharging inadequately treated fracking wastewater or disposing of it in unlined pits that do not have an impermeable base.

The editorial notes that the medical community’s duty is to make use of the widespread implementation of electronic medical records, to monitor toxicity and other health effects through observational cohort studies.

Fracking Health Problems

Fracking has become an increasing concern to environmentalists, lawmakers, and local communities as dozens of plaintiffs file lawsuits against the drilling companies for contaminating their local wells and exposing them to toxic chemicals that damaged their health and lowered their property values.

A number of fracking lawsuits have been filed in the United States, with one of the most recent verdicts issued in March by a federal jury in Pennsylvania that awarded two families in excess of $4.2 million in damages over fracking tainting their drinking water. The two families were the last of more than 40 families in the Dimock, Pennsylvania area to resolve lawsuits over fracking problems.

Similar cases have been filed in Texas, which is another popular state for fracking. In 2014 a family was awarded $2.9 million in damages due to the drilling company creating a public nuisance from fracking that caused nearly two dozen wells to become contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Fracking operations also face an increasing number of lawsuits over earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states. Recent research has linked fracking wells to an unprecedented increase in powerful earthquakes across the South and Midwest. U.S. government geologists now say that Oklahoma suffers more earthquakes than California, due entirely to fracking and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells.

Image Credit: Image via Christopher Halloran /


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