Activism The Health Effects of Fracking that We Should be Talking About

Published on May 5th, 2015 | by Lynn Fang


The Health Effects of Fracking that We Should be Talking About

The Health Effects of Fracking that We Should be Talking About

photo credit Erin Trieb

In 2005, Susan Wallace-Babb stepped out of her truck in Western Colorado and collapsed, unconscious. After seeking answers from local authorities, she learned that a natural gas well and a pair of storage tanks full of gas condensate that sat less than a half mile away, had overflowed into another tank. The fumes must have drifted over to her field.

The next morning Wallace-Babb was so sick she could barely move. She vomited uncontrollably and suffered explosive diarrhea. A searing pain shot up her thigh. Within days she developed burning rashes that covered her exposed skin, then lesions. As weeks passed, anytime she went outdoors, her symptoms worsened. Wallace-Babb’s doctor began to suspect she had been poisoned. [1]

Wallace-Babb’s symptoms parallel those reported by nearby residents in Parachute, CO, and by the many residents of communities that see natural gas drilling.

Related: 8 Fracking Myths, Debunked

A 10-year-old Colorado boy developed such severe nose bleeds that his mother used tampons to stop the bleeding. A blistering rash soon appeared on his skin, and his sister began to experience similar symptoms.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, the Micelles family noticed a strange metallic taste in their mouth, and after a few weeks, they all began to experience fatigue, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, and nosebleeds. Laboratory tests revealed that they all had toxic levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen in their blood.

Health Effects of Fracking

Countless individuals have experienced the health effects of fracking-related chemicals. Common symptoms or complications from those living near fracking sites include [2]:

  • fatigue
  • burning eyes
  • dermatologic irritation
  • headache
  • upper respiratory (difficulty breathing), gastrointestinal (severe abdominal pain), musculoskeletal (backache), neurologic (confusion, delirium), immunologi, sensory (smelling and hearing), vascular, bone marrow (nosebleeds), endocrine, and urologic problems
  • the risk of endocrine disruption
  • changes in quality of life and sense of well-being


The Health Effects of Fracking that We Should be Talking About

photo credit Casey Hugelfink

Despite these numerous health hazards, for the past two decades the US government has consistently supported expansion of natural gas drilling as a means to reduce dependency on foreign oil inputs. The extraction of natural gas trapped in low-permeable rock such as shale requires the use of hundreds of chemicals to drill holes up to 8,000 feet deep. Afterwards, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is done to break up areas of weakness and small fractures, making it easier for gas to escape, and making the well more productive. In addition to contamination to land and water, tons of toxic volatile compounds can escape and mix with nitrous oxides from diesel exhaust to produce ground-level ozone. Exposure to one highly reactive molecule of ground-level ozone can “burn the deep alveolar tissue in the lungs, causing it to age prematurely. Chronic exposure can lead to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and is particularly damaging to children, active young adults who spend time outdoors, and the aged.” [3]

Related: How Natural Gas Drilling Threatens Our Clean Water Future

Colborn, et al (2011) investigated the health effects of 353 chemicals used in fracking, and found that over 75% of them can affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and the liver.

These first four categories represent effects that would likely be expressed upon immediate exposure, such as skin and eye irritation, nausea and/or vomiting, asthma, coughing, sore throat, flu-like symptoms, tingling, dizziness, headaches, weakness, fatigue, numbness in extremities, and convulsions.

More than 25% of the chemicals can cause cancer, while 37% of them can affect the endocrine system. This study looked at MSDS information on each chemical, and there may be more severe, additive hazards associated with exposure to multiple chemicals. There is no way to study the effects of of multiple chemicals working in concert.

Is reducing dependency on foreign oil worth the price of American lives for natural gas drilling? There are many opportunities to support healthy, clean renewable alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. There is no reason to continue to expand natural gas drilling in the US. Several cities and states have passed bans on fracking, and on Earth Day this year, a bill was introduced by US Representatives Mark Pocan and Jan Schakowsky to ban fracking on a federal level – it is noted as the strongest anti-fracking bill introduced to Congress to date, and would ban fracking on public lands. Organizations such as the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Food and Water Watch can work with your community to develop and pass bans on fracking.

The Health Effects of Fracking that We Should be Talking About

photo credit Maryland Sierra Club


1. Lustgarden, Abraham and Kusnetz, Nicholas. “Science Lags as Health Problems Emerge Near Gas Fields” ProPublica Sept. 16, 2011.

2. McDermott-Levy, Ruth; Katkins, Nina; and Sattler, Barbara. “Fracking, the Environment, and Health: New energy practices may threaten public health” American Journal of Nursing June 2013, Vol 113, No. 6. pp. 45-5

3. Colborn, Theo; Kwiatkowski, Carol; Schultz, Kim; and Bachran, Mary. “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective” Human and Ecological Risk Assessment September 2011, Vol 17, pp. 1039-2056

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About the Author

is a compost consultant and educator, eco-conscious writer, and intuitive artist. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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