“Animals are the Sentinels”

by Downwinders on December 4, 2012

In the late 1980's Sue Pope became concerned about her horses and cows. Her favorite Arabian was developing "heave" muscles on its torso that Pope's vet said was the result of the horse straining to breathe. Her cattle were acting strangely and not developing as they should. These problems seem to come out of the blue, for no obvious reason Pope could figure out. She also noticed that she and her family didn't feel the same either and wondered if what was affecting her animals was also affecting them. She spoke with her neighbors, some of whom were also noticing strange things among their stock and themselves. They didn't have any answers either. That's when Pope started to look for causes outside the gate of her small Midlothain ranch.

And that was the beginning of what eventually turned into Downwinders at Risk. Because of her own experience it has been Sue Pope's belief that more than expensive monitors or dubious risk assessment studies, "animals are the sentinels" for human health. They are literally the canary furtherest down the coal mine.

When the ATSDR decided to review the monitoring information from Midlothain for it's "health consultation" beginning almost ten years ago, they were in part drawn by the large file of documented cases of animals illness, disease and deformities. There's more than one animal stock breeder who has moved to Midlothian over the last 25 years expecting that elusive "fresh country air" to benefit their animals only to find them suffering weird symptons never experienced before in previous locations.

Animals are sentinels, especially livestock, because they don't go to school or work, but stay in the same place all day and night, they graze exclusivley on local  plants grown in the local soil. They drink the local surface and/or well water. Livestock have the most exposure and the most "exposure pathways" to whatever potentially harmful chemicals might be in the environment. If it's harming the animals, it's probaly harming people as well.

That's the context for a new article out in The Nation about animals gettign sick in the gas patch.

"Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first (and, so far, only) peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled case studies of twenty-four farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems. Exposed either accidentally or incidentally to fracking chemicals in the water or air, scores of animals have died. The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning. 

Exposed animals “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.” 

In Louisiana, seventeen cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid. (Most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.) In north central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately seventy cows died; the remainder produced eleven calves, of which only three survived. In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing waste pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: half their calves were born dead. The following year’s animal births were sexually skewed, with ten females and two males, instead of the usual 50-50 or 60-40 split. 

In addition to the cases documented by Bamberger, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed around well pads in New Mexico found petroleum residues in fifty-four of fifty-six animals. In North Dakota, wind-borne fly ash, which is used to solidify the waste from drilling holes and contains heavy metals, settled over a farm: one cow, which either inhaled or ingested the caustic dust, died, and a stock pond was contaminated with arsenic at double the accepted level for drinking water."

People used to ask Downwinders why we decided to take on air pollution from the gas industry. The reason is that all of the red flags we saw over the years in Midlothian are also being raised around gas facilities – individually and/or collectlively. Many of the same chemicals, many of the same health effects from those chemicals, and then the warning from the animals.

Better than TCEQ monitors. Better than out-of-date risk assessments. Animals are some of the best Guinea Pigs we have in the laboratory of chemicals we all swim in. If we would only listen. 


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