We choose organic because it's clean, free of toxic chemical pesticides and unnatural genetic tinkering. The organic food movement is growing—a bright spot for our health and the economy. But another looming industry stands in the path of organic farms, practicing activities so dangerous they're maiming—or killing—nearby livestock. From radioactive water to air pollutants that attack brain and nervous system functioning, the fracking industry is damaging the food system in never before seen ways. "Fracking can make it difficult to farm and ranch because the use of toxic chemicals, as well as air pollution and large amounts of waste, are not good for plants and animals," explains Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at Natural Resources Defense Council.
Fracking, an energy-intensive, unconventional form of natural gas drilling that involves mixing millions of gallons of water with chemicals and injecting them at high pressure deep beneath the earth to crack ancient, often radioactive, rock and release the gas, is considered by many public health and food watchdog groups as a desperate measure to glean the last fossil fuels from the land. Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are fracking hotspots. And industry is turning the pressure on to frack in New York state. The problem? Some of the highest concentrations of organic farms are located on the Marcellus Shale, an area of subterranean shale that spans parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia, and one that's been dubbed "The Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas."
Often publicized as "clean burning" and "green," Cornell University researchers found that obtaining natural gas through the fracking method is in fact as polluting as coal, the fossil fuel linked to cancer and neurological damage in children.
Learn More: How Fracking Works
While the industry continues to insist fracking is safe, the truth is the practice has never been adequately tested to determine its short- or long-term impact on human health or the food supply, although many of the non-industry-sponsored studies that are trickling in suggest some real cause for concern.
A new fall 2012 study published in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment found dangerous non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs) linger near natural gas drilling sites even after the initial fracking process ends. Of the more than 50 NMHCs detected in the Colorado testing sites, 35 are known to affect brain and nervous system functioning. Some of those compounds can even damage children when they are exposed in utero.
These same compounds are believed to have effects on the health of farm animals. "Oil and gas production, including fracking, releases a long list of air pollutants, including toxic and volatile organic compounds that interact to form ground-level ozone commonly referred to as smog," Mall explains. "These air pollutants may lead to health impacts in livestock or affect crops."
Water contamination from spills and casing failures at drilling sites and soil, forage, and crop contamination from those fluids are of growing concern.
Earlier this year, a peer-reviewed study done by a molecular medicine expert at Cornell University found that livestock near fracking sites suffered abnormally high death rates, reproductive and digestive problems, and neurological damage.
And then there's the anecdotal evidence. A report in The Nation told the tale of once-healthy farmers and their animals falling seriously ill. One farming couple in North Dakota who live near a drilling site shared their story of falling ill and having trouble breathing. Their Angus beef cows are now breathing air laced with things like benzene, methane, chloroform, propane, toluene, and xylene—compounds linked to natural gas drilling and also to cancer, birth defects, and cancer. Previously healthy, the farm's cows experienced strange and sudden symptoms including limping, swollen legs, infections, and drastic weight loss. Cows stopped producing milk for their calves and some of their tails even fell off. (Lab rats exposed to the carcinogen 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent used in fracking, The Nation report explained.)
In Louisiana, the damage occurred quickly: Cows dropped dead within an hour of being exposed to frack fluid.
Concerns about negative impacts of fracking on not just water, but also air quality continue to mount, especially in food-producing areas with natural gas activities nearby. Like many pollution issues caused by large industries, scientists are playing catch-up, trying to determine effects on health as the gas drillers continue to sprawl across farmland and even drill near schools.
Read More: How to Fight Fracking in Your Neighborhood
The emerging science is what helped push Stephen Cleghorn, a professor and organic farmer in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, to create a first-in-the-nation conservation easement on his land that he hopes will keep gas drillers off of it. (Depending on the ownership of the mineral rights, fracking may take place on a farmer or rancher's land without his or her permission.) "The veterinary literature shows that 'aspiration pneumonia' is the leading cause of death for animals living near oil and gas drilling—that is, they breathe in pollutants coming off of drilling sites and get sick enough to die," says Cleghorn.
Here's what you can do:
Find help. If you'd like to say no to the development of toxic fossil fuel production, contact Natural Resources Defense Council to get involved with its Community Fracking Defense Project .
Push to keep moratoriums in place. Maintaining two current unconventional gas-drilling bans in New York state and the Delaware River watershed are key to protecting water for millions and maintaining hotspots for organic farming. "Many millions of people would be affected downstream of drilling in these areas," says Cleghorn. "If these moratoriums hold, it will provide a basis from which to insist that this practice be stopped nationwide."
New York state faces pressure to allow natural gas drilling, but Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said the state needs several more months to create proposed regulations before the industry can move into the state. Voice your opinion on allowing unconventional natural gas drilling in New York by contacting the governor's office.
To help keep fracking out of the Delaware River watershed, which provides drinking water for millions of people in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, sign this Change.org petition.
Protect against pipelines. Hundreds of miles of pipeline for transporting natural gas are cutting through old-growth forests, streams, and wetlands that are vital to clean water. The natural gas industry uses loopholes to sidestep important environmental rules meant to protect natural resources. To try and slow the spread of pipelines that would further accelerate gas production, sign this Delaware Riverkeeper letter.
On the national level, you can support Food and Water Watch's petition for a ban on natural gas drilling.