I am a faculty member in the College of Health Sciences and Professions at Ohio University. I am compelled to write to remind the leadership of OU, including the Board of Trustees, of one of the primary missions of the university as it prepares its response to the state regarding fracking on lands owned by the university.
OU, along with the College of Health Sciences and Professions (CHSP) and the Heritage College of Medicine (HCOM), have the express obligation to serve the underrepresented and underserved not just in Athens County but all of southeast Ohio. While Athens County has the highest poverty rate in the state (32.8 percent) much of southeast Ohio is impoverished. And with poverty comes many problems, among them poor health and lack of access and opportunity to resources necessary to develop and sustain healthy living.
Long-term exposure to fracking pollutants has the potential of worsening these individuals’ health problems. Others are also very susceptible to environmental toxins, regardless of poverty status – pregnant women, young children and adolescents.
Ohio University has the responsibility to do all it can to protect the most vulnerable among us. First, to the extent possible, the university must oppose fracking until tighter federal regulations are put in place. To do so would be consistent with the university’s commitment to serve all southeast Ohioans. Second, it must demand that the oil industry implement all of the precautions recommended in the Resolution on Hydraulic Fracturing at Ohio University developed by the Environmental Studies Advisory Board and passed by the Faculty Senate (March 12, 2012). These recommendations would require the industry to implement various measures to minimize the negative effects of fracking on the environment and human health within the university community.
The overwhelming majority of the local opposition to fracking has centered on its potential ill effects on the environment (i.e. contamination of water, air, soil) and local economy. This is for good reason. The emerging science and experiences of numerous communities around the country attest to these negative effects.
By contrast, little has been detailed about the risks to human health. There is good reason for this, too. Few studies have been conducted on the short- and long-term effects of fracking on human health. Big oil has taken full advantage of this circumstance when they claim there are no established links between fracking and human health problems. However, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. There are emerging data showing that fracking is indeed associated with numerous human health problems, including dermatological, endocrine, respiratory, kidney, liver, gastrointestinal, vascular, and neurological (Bamberger & Oswald, 2012; Colburn et al., 2011).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will publish findings later this year and in 2014 detailing both the health and environmental effects of fracking.
Meantime, the epidemiological literature (i.e. the study of disease patterns and the conditions that give rise to disease) provides us ample evidence of the sorts of long-term ill effects on human health we might expect from fracking, especially in children and adolescents who are particularly susceptible to environmental toxins. The science is clear. Well-established links exist between low-level but chronic exposure to environmental toxins and a wide range of childhood physical, neurological, cognitive and behavioral problems.
The National Academy of Sciences (2002) estimated that one in every 200 children suffers from physical, neurological, developmental, learning and/or behavioral disorders caused by exposure to known environmental toxins. A recent study (Trasande & Liu, 2011) reported that environmental childhood diseases cost $76.6 billion or 3.5 percent of U.S. health-care costs in 2008. The authors stated that “the environment has become a major part of childhood disease.”
The developing science focusing on the effects of fracking on human health and the epidemiological literature must not be ignored by OU and the Board of Trustees as they prepare their position statement on fracking. These literatures tell us what to expect in the wake of chronic exposure to toxins from an unregulated hydraulic fracturing technology: an increase in childhood physical, neurological, developmental, learning and/or behavioral disorders.
Also expect staggering financial stress on the health care, social service and educational systems across southeast Ohio as more families seek resources and support systems that already are in short supply. OU, the CHSP and HCOM have an institutional and social responsibility to protect the health of southeast Ohioans, particularly the most vulnerable: those living in poverty, pregnant women, young children and adolescents.
Jim Montgomery is a professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions at Ohio University