This post is partially adapted from an October 1, 2012, post on the Health and Environmental Funders Network’s blog, Giving InSight.

Public health concerns are a major part of escalating philanthropic attention to oil and gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” explained below.  In just fourteen months, more than forty foundations have joined a working group of funders concerned about the public health, environmental, and community impacts of fracking. The Funder Working Group on Hydrofracking is part of the Health and Environmental Funders Network (HEFN).  

A recent report produced for the working group by HEFN, and authored by consultant Michael Passoff, responds to this growing funder interest. The September 2012 Drilling Deeper: Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing and Related Grantmaking Strategies provides funders with an introduction to various philanthropic concerns related to fracking, as well as an outline of funding strategies being considered or implemented.

Hydraulic fracturing techniques have made it possible to reach previously inaccessible deposits of oil and gas trapped deep underground in shale rock. Fracking involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals under high pressure into deep wells, to crack shale rock and allow natural gas or oil trapped there to flow to the surface.  Fracking and the intensive industrial activities—including well construction, waste management, and gas transport and processing—related to it pose risks to public health, according to a September 2012 Government Accountability Office report. The report also states that the “extent of these risks is unknown, in part, because the studies GAO reviewed do not generally take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects.”

Funders are concerned about people being exposed to health hazards, as well as environmental contamination, from the full range of activities involved in shale gas development. Many of the chemicals in fracking fluid include known and suspected carcinogens. A study of chemicals used in fracking operations found that at least 75 percent could negatively affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, along with the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Air pollution caused by venting gases and diesel exhaust from trucks moving to and from drill sites all release substantial amounts of volatile organic compounds that have been linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Each fracking event uses millions of gallons of water. Shale gas development also produces millions of gallons of wastewater annually. Research on fracking wastewater has found toxicity levels above allowable thresholds, as well as radioactive materials picked up underground; such radioactive materials have been shown to cause liver, bone, and breast cancers.

Low levels of attention to health effects amidst the rapid spread of shale gas development are compounding philanthropic concerns about exposures and contamination.  The natural gas industry is exempt from some or all of federal regulatory protections of public health from environmental hazards, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.  Research to assess health effects is complicated by a lack of baseline testing, undisclosed chemicals, multiple sources of exposure, lack of monitoring and tracking systems, and a lack of data transparency. Most policy processes to date have given scant attention to public health considerations; state advisory panels in Pennsylvania and Maryland, as well as a national panel led by the U.S. Secretary of Energy, did not include any members with medical or public health expertise.

Grantmakers concerned about health are making varied investments in response. Some invest in research, monitoring, or public education to help inform policy, practices, and public understanding. Foundations focused in places where gas development is under way are working to assist local communities facing immediate health effects. For example, the Claneil Foundation (a family foundation in Pennsylvania that works to create healthy communities), Heinz Endowments, and Pittsburgh Foundation helped fund the new Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, an organization created to assist Washington County, Pennsylvania, residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.

The New York Community Trust has sought to protect New York City’s drinking water, which serves 10 million residents, and to ensure that New York State’s environmental review process, which is done before drilling permits are issued, is comprehensive and leads to appropriate regulatory protections. The New York Community Trust also has supported advocates seeking to educate New York legislators about the environmental and health considerations of fracking.

Some funders have supported projects at the national level to shed light on health impacts of fracking. The 11th Hour Project, a program of the Schmidt Family Foundation, funded an effort to analyze water supply threats, considering both water needs and pollution. The 11th Hour Project also commissioned an environmental health expert to write a report on identified public health concerns related to fracking, to help funders and others understand and address public health impacts.

The funders participating in HEFN’s funder working group on hydrofracking aim to learn about the issues, share information, and explore collaboration. For more information on the working group, please e-mail

The authors gratefully acknowledge the foundations that provide support to the Health and Environmental Funders Network. A list of these foundations is available on the network’s website at

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