Grand County, home to large quantities of natural gas, oil, and tar sands, is now a target for an unparalleled energy boom. The council’s alternative three, which environmental groups call the “least impactful,” opens up more than 300,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands and includes a road to facilitate the oil and gas drilling boom. While most of the public may understand some of the trade-offs for public lands sacrifice – big bucks in the short term for irreversible degradation to wilderness and fragile desert ecosystems, possible decline to tourism from the marring of scenic vistas, an increase in industrial traffic with potential for accidents and spills, and the use of millions of gallons of limited fresh clean water – most of the public is unaware of the serious health risks.
Before opening our public lands to extraction we need to think critically around the health risks. To do this we need to learn: 1. How extractive industries work and the laws protecting us, and 2. About consequences of air and water exposure to chemicals generated by the industry.
First and foremost, the oil and gas industry is exempt from key provisions of seven major federal environmental laws – permitting practices that would otherwise be illegal. These include laws that regulate contamination of our air and our drinking water, both of which are the key routes of exposure to toxic chemicals. Some of the exemptions date back decades; others were adopted with the Energy Policy Act of 2005. In addition to reducing environmental regulation, the 2005 act also reduced the requirement for strong public involvement around several oil and gas related activities. Many potentially toxic chemicals are purposely used in the extraction processes and others are unintended by-products. In the case of hydraulic fracturing, the method used for most natural gas development in Utah, 100’s of chemicals are pumped into the ground in the fracturing process, many of them are proprietary and are unknown to the public.
Mounting evidence is finding elevated cancer rates and other serious health risks arising from extraction, transportation, and processing of tar sands, natural gas, and oil. A report published in 2011 in the journal “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment” examined the potential health impacts of oil and gas drilling in relation to the chemicals used during drilling, fracking, processing and delivery of natural gas. A list of 944 products containing 632 chemicals used (an incomplete list because of trade secrecy exemptions) during U.S. natural gas operations was compiled. The research found that 75 percent of the chemicals could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40 to 50 percent could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37 percent could affect the endocrine system; and 25 percent could cause cancer and mutations.
Recent reports show air pollutants from Canadian tar sands extraction include toxic constituents that are carcinogens such as benzene and styrene. Other reports find high concentrations of fossil fuel pollutants extending outward from upgrading facilities that are known to damage DNA; others are carcinogens, and many cause developmental impacts. A landmark study published in the journal “Atmospheric Environment” in November, 2013 found elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers of the lymph and blood-forming systems downwind of tar sands industrial facilities.
Chronic diseases have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, affecting more than 100 million men, women and children, which is more than one-third of our population. Asthma, autism, autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, cancers, developmental disabilities, diabetes, endometriosis, infertility, Parkinson’s disease and other diseases and disabilities are not only causing increased suffering but great economic cost exceeding $325 billion yearly in health care and lost productivity. Growing scientific consensus is associating disease to our cumulative exposure from small doses of numerous environmental toxins, including industrial pollutants. Many of the industrial pollutants associated with energy extraction are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are powerful chemicals of great concern because they impact the endocrine system at very low concentrations, far less than government safety standards.
These aforementioned studies are just a few in the growing body of public health research linking extractive industries to ill health and chronic disease. These issues must be carefully considered by residents in the Moab area, who could be impacted by the outcome. We need to think critically about shortsighted decisions before we make long-term commitments, and demand more from the politicians who are not considering our health and the health of future generations.
Teri Underwood, R.D., M.S., C.D., is the founder of Sustainable Diets. She is a health professional with 30 years’ experience, specializing in environmental-nutrition and sustainable food and water systems.