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Environment & Energy

What The Latest Science Says About Oil, Gas And Human Health

In this Oct. 14, 2011, file photo, a drilling rig is set up to tap gas from the Marcellus Shale gas field, near a barn in the Susquehanna County township of Springville, Pa.

Health and environmental scientists who specialize in the potential impacts of oil and gas production will discuss their work on Tuesday at the annual Shale & Public Health conference, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania. 

Among the presenters is public health expert Lee Ann Hill of the non-profit research institute Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy. Hill found that 80 percent of the waste produced by oil and gas development in Pennsylvania remained in the state.

Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado will also present. This summer, McKenzie found that mothers who live in areas with higher levels of oil and gas development were more likely to give birth to babies with congenital heart defects.

“We need to do more work to understand exactly why, but it is an indication that health is potentially being impacted,” she said.

Other researchers will discuss possible effects on drinking water, fracking’s influence on maternal anxiety and depression and the climate.

The oil and gas industry has long discredited research that links fracking with public health problems, and the work of this year's presenters is no exception.

For example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said because McKenzie’s study relied on data from 2011, its results couldn’t be applied in today’s regulatory environment. But McKenzie said that just because regulations have changed that doesn’t mean potential negative impacts of fracking have been eliminated.

“You can change the speed limit, that doesn’t mean that everyone changes the speed that they’re driving," she said.

The oil and gas industry has long ​attempted to discredit research that links fracking with public health problems ​by criticizing the results of studies and what it says are their limitations. The industry also cites its efforts to protect public health.

For example, in response to a 2016 study that showed an association between living near heavy gas drilling activity and common ailments like chronic nasal and sinus symptoms, severe fatigue and migraines, the American Petroleum Institute said, "Safety is a core value for the industry, and the men and women in our industry are committed to protecting the communities in which they operate. "

The League of Women Voters, which has dubbed this year’s event “The Straight Scoop on Shale,” said presenters will describe how they conducted their research and address any methodological issues.

“I think that the more information that the public can have, local organizations, as well as policy makers and decisions makers, the more information that’s out there,” said Hill. “The more effective and scientifically robust policy can be put forward.”