S.W. Pennsylvania is Definitely “Fractured” Among Other Places, Part 2

by Duane Nichols on March 3, 2021

Families in proximity to drilling, fracking and trucking are at risk

Fractured: The stress of being surrounded by gas well pads and heavy equipment operations

From an Article by Kristina Marusic, Reporter for Environmental Health News Network, March 2, 2021

This is part 2 of our 4-part series, “Fractured,” an investigation of fracking chemicals in the air, water, and people of western Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa.—In the spring of 2019, after years worrying about exposures from a fracking well about a half mile from her grandkids’ school, Jane Worthington decided to move them to another school district.

Her granddaughter Lexy had been sick on and off for years with mysterious symptoms, and Jane believed air pollution from the fracking well was to blame. She was embroiled in a legal battle aimed at stopping another well from being drilled near the school. She felt speaking out had turned the community against them.

“It seemed like practically everyone in the district had leased their mineral rights,” Jane told Environmental Health News (EHN). “We couldn’t get anywhere with the school board, and it seemed like they all had a reason to want us to just shut up and go away.”

The social strain combined with her granddaughter’s illness was enough to make her want to leave. Money was tight for Jane, who is a single caregiver, but she found a deal on a foreclosure in another school district.

The house, white with sage green shutters, sat on a quiet residential street. It was a bit of a fixer-upper, but she didn’t mind the work—she just wanted a safe, comfortable home for her grandchildren, Lexy and Damien, who she’d raised since they were babies. At the time, Lexy was 15-years old and Damien was 13.

The kids fell in love with the house. There were still fracking wells nearby — they’re virtually impossible to avoid in Washington County — but there were none within a mile of the school, and they didn’t see any new wells being drilled close to the house.

Soon after moving in, though, they learned that their new home was within a mile and a half of a well pad with six wells already in production (meaning no longer being “fracked” or drilled, but producing natural gas and oil), and less than a half mile away from a large metal casting facility. An EHN analysis of the air and water at their new home, along with urine samples from the family, suggest they’re being exposed to higher-than-average levels of many of the chemicals they were concerned about at their old house. “We don’t seem to be able to get away from this,” Jane said.

In 2019, EHN collected urine samples, along with air and water samples, from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania and had them analyzed for chemicals associated with fracking.

Here is how we conducted our study

Jane and her grandchildren were one of the five families we studied. We collected a total of nine urine samples from the family over a 5-week period and found 18 chemicals known to be commonly emitted from fracking sites in one or more samples, including benzene, toluene, naphthalene, and lesser-known compounds—all of which are linked to negative health impacts including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, organ damage, reproductive harm, and increased cancer risk.

Some chemical exposures aren’t detectable in urine if the body has already processed them, so we also looked for breakdown products, or biomarkers, for harmful chemicals. Some of these biomarkers show up when people consume certain foods or beverages, so to determine whether the levels we saw in Pennsylvania families were normal, we compared them against those seen in the average American using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

We found that urine samples for Jane and her grandkids contained biomarkers for fracking chemicals at levels higher than the U.S. 95th percentile — the value that 95 percent of Americans fall below, according to that CDC data.

All of the family’s samples exceeded the U.S. 95th percentile for mandelic acid, a biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene. More than half of the family’s samples exceeded the U.S. 95th percentile for phenylglyoxylic acid, another biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene, and for trans, trans-muconic acid, a biomarker for benzene. A third of the family’s samples exceeded the 95th percentile for hippuric acid, a biomarker for toluene.

Exposure to these compounds is linked to eye, skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal irritation; neurological, immune, kidney, cardiovascular, blood, and developmental disorders; hormone disruption; and increased cancer risk.

The family’s urine samples also suggested that they had higher-than-average exposures to biomarkers for toluene and xylenes, which are linked to skin and eye irritation, drowsiness and dizziness, and central nervous system damage.

There’s no way to know for certain whether the family’s exposures came from fracking emissions. We visited Jane’s home, had her complete an extensive survey about other possible sources of exposure, and recorded the family’s activities around the time of our sampling and did not find other obvious explanations, though the metal casting facility near Jane’s new home could also contribute to these exposures.

The exposures confirm Jane’s worst fears—that the children she’s tasked with protecting are exposed to harmful chemicals simply because of where they live. But the impacts run deeper. The family seemingly cannot escape the effects of an industry that wields tremendous power in the state and is allowed to operate within 500 feet of schools and homes housing children and other vulnerable residents. Researchers warn the impacts extend to the more out-of-sight aspects of health—people’s sleep, their social network, and their overall mental well being.

“I just wish there was more awareness that it really is dangerous for every family that lives here,” Jane said. “It isn’t as safe as we tend to want to make ourselves feel. This is proof.”


See also: When the Kids Started Getting Sick, Eliza Griswold, New Yorker Magazine, March 2, 2021

After pressure from families, Pennsylvania has launched studies into whether fracking can be linked to local illnesses.

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