Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: Exploring the Health Effects of Fracking

Elaine Hill

A few years ago, Elaine Hill was a doctoral student in applied economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, studying maize markets in Uganda [1] and dairy supply chains in the northeastern U.S [2]. But when fracking—a controversial, hydraulic fracturing technique used to produce oil and natural gas—became a hot topic in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Hill was motivated to shift gears.

After watching a documentary about fracking, Hill decided to search for scientific evidence on its possible health effects, but found relatively little high-quality data. So, she embarked on a new project—one that eventually earned her a Ph.D.—to evaluate what, if any, impact fracking has on infant and child health. Now, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hill is pursuing this line of research further as an assistant professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY.

During the fracking process, production crews bore up to a mile or more into the ground to tap deposits of oil and gas trapped in shale and other underground rock formations. They then inject large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at very high pressures, fracturing the rock and releasing oil and gas deposits through what’s commonly known as a “shale gas well.” Most health concerns focus on potentially toxic chemicals in the mix created by fracking, which either remains underground or is stored in above-ground waste ponds. These chemicals—ranging from acids to hydrocarbons—have the potential to enter air, soil, and/or groundwater.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.