Today, the health commissioner of the state of New York, Howard Zucker, announced that he has completed a study into the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing for the recovery of natural gas. Although there are few demonstrated health risks, Zucker noted that there are a great many uncertainties about the process, and these make it impossible to design intelligent regulations that minimize potential risks. As a result, the state will ban the practice indefinitely.
Zucker’s review describes a large number of possible problems that could affect the health of residents of the state. These include air pollution, both from the equipment and the chemicals used in the fracking, as well as leakage from the wells themselves. Concerns regarding water focus on the chemicals in the fracking fluid, which can both spread underground or contaminate surface waters through spills or incomplete processing. Finally, fracking has clearly resulted in elevated earthquake risks in some areas, although the quakes remained small.
Right now, most of these risks are hypothetical; Zucker’s report cites a large number of long-term, fracking-focused health studies that are in progress but aren’t expected to yield results for several years. The studies that have been completed “raise substantial questions about whether the risks of HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing] activities are sufficiently understood so that they can be adequately managed.” In other words, although it might be possible to regulate fracking in a way that limits health risks, we don’t know enough about the health risks themselves to design regulations.
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