The health impact study, released Tuesday by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Wisconsin's Health, indicates that harmful health effects are unlikely to result from the frac sand industry's influence on air quality, groundwater quality and land reclamation.
"The panic around the health impacts is a bit moderated by this report," said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, a partner in the study. "There is good evidence that there are unlikely to be health impacts related to some of the factors that some people are really worried about."
Audrey Boerner, health impact assessment specialist with the institute, said she doesn't know if the results will quiet critics who have expressed concerns about the danger from inhaling fine sand particles or from potential groundwater contamination by the industry, but she stressed that authors strived to create an unbiased report based on science.
"We found that a lot of the environmental issues that are brought up between community members and in the media really don't have a scientific basic for potential health impacts," Boerner said.
But Crispin Pierce, director of UW-Eau Claire's environmental public health program, said Tuesday he believes the study ignored important air quality data collected by university students at sand mining sites at Bloomer, New Auburn and Augusta during the past 18 months.
The students used an instrument validated by the U.S. Army but not certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to assess the prevalence of extremely tiny airborne particles that can get into deep lung tissue and cause a range of serious health problems, Pierce said. The health impact study focused on levels of larger silica particles.
"I was disappointed because I felt like our data was kind of sidelined, and it's the only work that looked at these fine particles," Pierce said. "As a scientist, I want to look at all the information we have available and put together what we know about the risk at that point, and I don't think they did that."
The study states that data collected at several facilities in the Upper Midwest do not indicate that health-based standards have been exceeded with regard to respirable crystalline silica.
After a long history of emotional debate about the impact of sand mining in the region, Giese said, she hoped some residents would take comfort in one of the study's primary conclusions: "The air you breathe is not likely to be a huge issue."
As for the potential effect on water quality, Chippewa County conservationist Dan Masterpole said the study did a good job of addressing potential environmental concerns, which the county attempts to limit through permit conditions and ongoing work with mining companies.
The study did find that health effects are possible from changes to groundwater quantity in certain areas, and the industry could have negative health consequences for some people because of stress and anxiety related to the impact of mining on property values, marketability of land and quality of life issues such as traffic, light and noise.
The Institute for Wisconsin's Health collaborated with 15 governmental health departments, the University of Iowa's Environmental Health Research Center, sand mining industry representatives, expert reviewers and community members over the past year to gather and analyze information. The participating health departments were in Barron, Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Pepin, Pierce, Rusk, St. Croix and Trempealeau counties, along with the Ho-Chunk Nation.
The assessment was supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.