I first started organizing in my community – Love Canal in Niagara Falls – after figuring out that a chemical waste dump was making my kids and neighbors sick in the late 1970s. It quickly became clear that our local elected officials and the company responsible for the toxic waste didn't want to take responsibility for the public health hazard that they had let fester.
Because of this, our community was plagued with birth defects, miscarriages and mysterious illnesses.
Our experience – and that of other towns – makes it clear that companies can't be expected to have the community's best interests at heart. Too often, companies that pose potential dangers to our communities privatize profits and socialize risks, leaving us with only the costs of their mistakes.
That's why it is so scary that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is considering a proposal to allow fracking in several upstate New York counties.
When companies "frack" for gas, they take millions of gallons of water, mix it with tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals – including known carcinogens – and pump it all underground at extreme pressure to break up the rock, thereby releasing natural gas.
While data on the health impacts of fracking is limited due to confidentiality agreements, the data we do have is scary.
One big concern is radon. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that Marcellus shale gas may contain high levels of radon.
Because radon takes several days to decay, that radon will travel into our homes along with the Marcellus gas. When people in small kitchens cook with Marcellus gas, they could be exposing themselves to the nation's second-leading cause of lung cancer.
In Love Canal, we figured out that much of the danger was coming from our water. While the data are still coming in, fracking seems to cause similar problems. Since fracking wells inevitably leak, the chemicals they use can leak into the water supply.
Scientists have found that 25 percent of the hundreds of chemicals the industry has used in fracking are linked to cancer; 37 percent disrupt the reproductive system; 40 percent to 50 percent can affect the nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems; and more than 75 percent could impair sensory organs and the respiratory system.
Not surprisingly, when these chemicals leak, health problems for residents and livestock ensue.
There is also no safe way to dispose of the resulting highly toxic wastewater.
Instead of creating hundreds or even thousands of potential Love Canals across New York State, Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation ought to stand up to the oil and gas industry and ban fracking.
Lois Marie Gibbs is founder and executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.