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Medical experts talk fracking, dam health risks

Group of physicians and medical students to share current evidence Tuesday at Douglas College on whether some of B.C.'s largest industrial developments could also hurt our health.

Water gushes from a fracking drilling pipe set to be replaced in Midland, Texas, in this 2013 file photo. The drilling method known as fracking uses huge amounts of high-pressure, chemical-laced water to free oil and natural gas trapped deep in underground rocks.

Pat Sullivan / AP

Water gushes from a fracking drilling pipe set to be replaced in Midland, Texas, in this 2013 file photo. The drilling method known as fracking uses huge amounts of high-pressure, chemical-laced water to free oil and natural gas trapped deep in underground rocks.

Medical researchers will argue that fracking — the high-pressure chemical extraction of natural gas increasingly used in the province — and the Site C hydro dam both pose a risk to British Columbians' health at Douglas College on Tuesday evening.

Environmental health scientist Amy Lubik, who is moderating the panel as a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), said more research is needed, but cited several studies suggesting possible links between hydraulic fracturing and birth defects and low birth rates.

"One of the problems with hydraulic fracturing is it's quite a new technology," she said in a phone interview. "We've only been doing it for just over a decade, and the majority of research published has only come out since 2013 — we don't really have any long-term studies about how it might affect our health.

"But we're seeing more instances of hospitalization around sites with high levels of fracking, and there are studies that have shown some association between maternal residents near fracking wells, and potential birth defects or low birth rates."

CAPE added on its website that preliminary studies suggest "hormone-disrupting properties of fracking fluids and their potential for reproductive and developmental toxicity," as well as more congenital heart disease and asthma. Meanwhile, megadams have been linked to raised toxic methylmercury levels.

Lubik said she first became interested in the industry's health impacts when she was a cancer researcher, and although no single cause of cancer can be proven in the short-term, health researchers flagged concerns in early studies.

"I learned about endocrine disruptors — hormone-mimicking chemicals used in the fracking process," she said. "The chemicals they use, that we do know, approximately one-third can contaminate the airshed or the watershed."

B.C. stands at a "critical crossroads" with current hydraulic fracturing projects, CAPE argued, as well as the hopes of a nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. On its website, the advocacy organization cited a growing number of jurisdictions worldwide halting or banning the practice "for health reasons."

In Canada, it's banned in Quebec, the Yukon, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and paused in Newfoundland and Labrador. It's also banned in New York, Vermont and Maryland, and overseas in France and paused in Scotland.

"We need the citizens, as well as the government of B.C. to understand the potential health consequences for fracking," said CAPE, which joined calls for a B.C. fracking moratorium in April. Those at greatest risk, the researchers said, are First Nations near the Site C dam and natural gas projects, several of which are leading ongoing lawsuits over the developments.

"It's been identified as 'environmental racism' in studies in the States," she said, "where it's usually communities of colour or quite impoverished residnets located around these kinds of industrial operations.

"In Canada, we need to have those kinds of studies done here, but in general, when you look at where a lot of fracking and other industrial operations are happening, that's primarily First Nations people having to deal with these health risks."

Members of Tuesday's panel include CAPE founder Dr. Warren Bell, Richard Wright of Gitxsan Nation's Luutkudziiwus house, and University of B.C. law professor Gordon Christie.

The Fractured B.C. panel starts 7 p.m. Tuesday at Douglas College's Coquitlam campus (1250 Pinetree Way, near Lafarge Lake-Douglas Evergreen Line station), entry free or by donation.

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