Letters to the Editor

Monday, 18 June 2012

Barbara Harris to lecture in Fredericton and Taymouth on pubic health effects of shale gas

Imagine having your health destroyed without knowing what did it.

One day you're going about your routine, going to work, looking after the kids, and the next you're down in bed because you're so exhausted you feel you can't take another step. You have the shades pulled because that migraine in your head throbs worse with light in the room. A rash has developed on your chest, but you're so dizzy and uncoordinated you're afraid to get up to get something to put on it. Your spouse is now waiting on you hand and foot doing simple things you could do for yourself only a short time ago. You've got to take time off work, or worse still, you lose your job. As the days wear on you begin to get depressed. Nothing you do to treat the symptoms helps. You're not getting better. Doctors can't figure out what's wrong with you. The house is a mess. The laundry is piled up. The kids don't understand why you're not you're usual self. 

No one knows you've just been ambushed by the effects of chemical exposure. It's in the air all around you, coming from something somewhere. But because it's invisible, has no scent and is in just about everything in our daily lives, you have no idea it's what's causing your illness. And it could last for years, if not a lifetime, if you don't figure out that it's chemical exposure you're dealing with. Even if you do figure it out and get better, there is no guarantee your health will ever be completely normal again, and little recourse to compensate you for what you've lost.

Barb Harris knows full well what it's like to have her health destroyed. About twenty years ago she got very sick from unknown chemical exposure. Although she figured out what made her sick and started avoiding it, she doesn't have her health back completely. So she began to study the impacts of everyday chemical exposures on human health. For over a decade now, Harris has focused on research and writing about the public health effects of environmental toxins. 

Her work led her to become a core member of the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia in 2000. EHANS is a community-based non-profit that educates the public on ways to identify and avoid environmental toxins, while helping them find healthy alternatives. EHANS also works with other groups to stave off public health threats so people aren't exposed. 

When the shale gas fracking issue came to her neighborhood last year in River John after the north shore of Nova Scotia was leased for onshore oil and gas exploration, she went into overdrive to educate herself on the environmental effects of the industry on human health. The area was leased by the government shortly before it decided to review the industry and place further development on hold for the next two years.

The province is expected to use the review process to formulate regulations on the shale gas industry in Nova Scotia. But the public is frustrated it's being influenced by industry, and that the scope of the process is too narrow; only taking into consideration the technical aspects, not health or air effects.

Not waiting around, Harris co-authored a submission from EHANS to the province's review board to make it aware of the devastating effects chemical exposure from the industry can have on human health. 

She also got involved with NOFRAC, a Nova Scotia anti-shale gas coalition, and began making public presentations on the health impacts of shale gas and fracking in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. 

Tomorrow night at 7 pm in MacLaggan Hall's room 53 on the UNB campus and Wednesday night at 7 pm in the Taymouth Community Centre, Harris will talk about her research into the impacts of airborne chemicals from shale gas fracking on human health. Since not a lot of studies have been done in Canada, her information is mainly from the United States. In the two free lectures, Harris will talk about the ways people are exposed through air pollution and the levels of exposure in some places. This publication had a chance to talk to Harris late last week and discuss the issue with her.

"In Nova Scotia, it began with the hype that shale gas would be a clean transition energy with great economic benefits. But counter analyses began to show the risks outweigh the benefits," said Harris.

Although the government answered public concern with it's review, Harris found there is a lack of focus on the health impacts of the shale gas industry. Something that often happens in industry studies.

"It's a huge piece of the puzzle that's usually left out," she said. 

Harris said she's uneasy about what could could happen if people are exposed to chemical toxins in the air due to fracking. It's not wise to do the studies after the damage is done.

She also questions the concept of "best practices" regarding regulation of the industry. She wonders if they're good enough; if they balance with health concerns.

"The industry isn't contained in a building with a controlled environment. It's in open areas near homes, schools, agriculture and forests," she said. "That has to be take into consideration [when formulating regulations]."

As was discussed in the recent forum on shale gas in Moncton, Tom Murphy of Penn State's Marcellus Center said technologies are evolving in the industry at a rapid rate, making it hard to know what the long term environmental impacts will be. Harris agreed.

"We need to know the impacts of industry. It's [slickwater hydraulic fracturing] not like any other industry. They're doing things that have never been done before," she said.

Those who raise concerns about the shale gas industry are often labelled as "fearmongers" by government, industry and business in favor of it. But Harris said knowing what's contained in the chemical recipes used during the fracking of a shale gas well is only common sense, not fear.

"Fear is not helpful. I try not to work from a place of fear. We need to know the long term harm when new contaminates are created and used in huge quantities," she said.

Harris added, "If it's so safe, why is it so secretive? [Financial] settlements with fracking companies are sealed. If there is nothing to worry about, why can't we have all the information?"

She referenced the book, Merchants of Doubt, to explain her feelings on being labelled a fearmonger. She said the book explains how industry has perfected dealing with opposition to "manufacture doubt" in scientific fact.

"They change the discussion to people being emotional when that's not the issue. It's looking at the information," Harris said. 

Although she is a lay person who's educated herself on the topic, Harris said with so much information and conflicting opinion out there, along with the new industry technologies, it only makes sense to put things on pause.

"There's a lot we don't know so maybe we should slow down. Medical communities are saying slow down. So a long term moratorium from a health point of view makes sense," she said. 

Even with everything she knows about the dangers of the shale gas industry to human health, Harris remains hopeful it will be delayed in the Maritimes.

"It's not a done deal anywhere. In the places where it was banned, or a moratorium was put in place, it was always due to an informed opposition. Many things can tip the balance. I have hope."


Barbara Harris has published several articles on the health impacts of shale gas in the national cancer prevention publication, The Ounce. She is co-author if the Guide to Less Toxic Products and runs a website with the same name, www.lesstoxicguide.ca. As the EHANS representative on the Pesticide Free Nova Scotia Coalition, she helped gain a provincial ban on cosmetic pesticides used for lawn landscaping in 2011. She lives in River John, Nova Scotia.

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