Fracking poses environmental cancer risk,

says activist author

by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Google “Sandra Steingraber” and you learn that she is an ecologist, an author, a cancer survivor. She is also internationally recognized as an authority on environmental links to cancer and other health problems, and the author of the highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream, which was recently made into a movie.

      But when we settle into an interview in Trumansburg, it becomes immediately clear that Steingraber sees her most important role as a parent whose responsibility is to keep her children safe.

photo by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

Author/activist Sandra Steingraber, with son Elijah, says the environmental risks from natural gas hydrofracking take away her ability to keep him safe from harm  

      She keeps one eye on her eight-year-old son, Elijah, as she talks about a trip to Washington, D.C., where she was one of three participants in a congressional staff briefing. Their topic: the President’s Cancer Panel report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” released in early May. Nineteen months earlier, Steingraber had testified before the panel. Thirteen years before that she had returned to her hometown in Illinois as an environmental detective, searching for clues to explain how, between her sophomore and junior years of college, she developed bladder cancer.

      It was environmental, Steingraber said. Though she’d never worked in a textile factory, smelted aluminum, or worked at a dry cleaner’s, she’d developed a cancer with established links to chemicals particular to those occupations. A decade-and-a-half later, she learned that the public drinking water wells in her hometown contain traces of those chemicals.

      The biggest problem Steingraber sees is the disconnect between scientific evidence and regulatory response. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), adopted by Congress in 1976, regulates the introduction of new or already existing chemicals. But it grandfathered in most existing chemicals, Steingraber explained. “It is so weak that it couldn’t even ban asbestos.” She notes that even industry recognizes that they are losing market share in the European Union because of this law.

     That’s because the European Union embraces a precautionary approach to regulating industrial pollutants, Steingraber said. In contrast, the U.S. takes a reactionary approach in regulating chemicals, forcing citizens to bear the burden of proving that a chemical causes harm. She quotes the President’s Cancer Panel: “Stronger regulation is needed.”

      Industry is, and has been for years, exploiting regulatory weaknesses at a high cost to the nation. How high? From cancers alone, from just one year (2009), the National Institutes of Health estimates a cost of $243.4 billion. That’s $99 billion in direct medical costs, $19.6 billion for the cost of lost productivity due to illness, and $124.8 billion for the lost productivity due to premature death.

      Steingraber points to a recent study in West Virginia that shows the entire economic benefit to the state from the coal industry is wiped out by the mortality and lost productivity of sick coal miners.

     “Cancer is not cheap,” Steingraber said. She speaks from experience. Treatment is expensive, and survivors continue to receive periodic checkups and treatment. “Forget about having a retirement fund or money in the bank,” she said, noting that individuals aren’t covering all the bills. As taxpayers, we’re all under­writing the cost of environmental pollution.

      Aside from the economic argument, Steingraber pointed out a basic human right: killing people with toxic chemicals is wrong. “When we realized slavery was wrong, we didn’t regulate slavery or settle for state-of-the-art slavery,” Steingraber said. “We abolished it.”

      And that’s where Steingraber thinks we ought to be with cancer. In its letter to President Obama last spring, the cancer panel urged him to “remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.”

      Those words have direct implications for high-volume hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” Steingraber said, stressing each word, “means deliberately introducing carcinogens into our land, water and air.” She introduced the issue during her congressional briefing, and also in a meeting with White House science and technology staffers.“The President’s Cancer Panel report is a strong argument against fracking,” she added.

      Pointing to the industry’s quality control problems, Steingraber noted that even if there’s not a single chemical spill in New York, there will still be problems: diesel exhaust from trucks, emissions from compressors at the well site, emissions from compressor stations and leaks in pipelines.

     “Then you have the chemicals themselves.” Steingraber cited the revelation of 981 gas and oil spills in Colorado. Frack fluid, combined with produced water (brine), accounted for more than 80 percent of the 5.2 million gallons spilled.

     “Spills seem to routinely accompany the process,” Steingraber said, “but I am very concerned about the chemicals left in the ground.” Things move underground in ways they’re “not supposed to,” in ways we don’t expect them to, Steingraber said.

     “Maybe we can clean up surface spills,” Steingraber said. “But shattered bedrock—there’s no fixing that.” She gives a quick glance at her son, Elijah.

     “Industry shouldn’t introduce technologies where, in the worst case scenario there’s nothing to be done,” Steingraber mused. She’s talking about the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but she could just as easily be talking about Dimock, or her home in Trumansburg. Steingraber understands the push to extract energy from unconventional sources; we’ve used up the easily obtained fossil fuels. So we go deeper into the ocean, with catastrophic results, she says. We remove mountaintops for coal, with catastrophic results. Now we’re fracking for gas, with catastrophic results. “How far are we willing to go to get this energy?”, she asks.

      Environmental thinking has given us new ways of looking at things, Steingraber said, like “full cost accounting.” If we fully factored in the true environmental costs of fracking, it would mean counting the diesel fumes from trucks hauling water and chemicals to the site, and frack fluid and well waste from the site. It would mean factoring in the runoff and erosion from drilling pads and access roads, chemical spills and wear and tear on local roads and infrastructure. A huge truck rumbles by, the fourth in an hour, shaking the bridge on Route 96 as it grinds its way up Trumansburg’s main street.

“The only way to get shale gas is through fracking, and the only way to do fracking is to degrade the commons,” Steingraber said. “This is the most urgent environmental issue we now face.”

You can read the President’s Cancer Panel report here:
You can read Sandra Steingraber’s articles and blog posts at her website,

Sue Smith-Heavenrich is a freelance writer and member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. She lives in Candor and blogs at