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Climate ChangeAs Evidence Mounts, Latest Concerns About Fracking and Health

As Evidence Mounts, Latest Concerns About Fracking and Health

Almost 20 years after the adoption of hydraulic fracturing began to supercharge U.S. production of oil and gas, there’s growing evidence of a correlation between the industry’s activities and an array of health problems starting from childhood cancer and the premature death of elderly people to respiratory issues and endocrine disruption.

While the oil and gas industry insists its processes are secure, and regulators have set rules designed to forestall the contamination of air and water by “fracking” technology, advocates for stricter limits on the practice, and even an outright ban, point to an increasing variety of studies suggesting that fracking poses a threat to public health.

A paper by the Yale School of Public Health this summer showed that children living near Pennsylvania wells that use fracking to reap natural gas are two to 3 times more more likely to contract a type of childhood leukemia than their peers who live farther away. That followed a Harvard study in January that found elderly people living near or downwind from gas pads have a better risk of premature death than seniors who don’t live in that proximity.

In April, the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of Latest York, which consists of health professionals, scientists, and medical organizations, published its most up-to-date compendium of investigations into risks and harms linked with fracking. Since 2014, the compendium has tallied 2,239 peer-reviewed papers that found evidence of harm, with nearly 1,000 of those papers published since 2018.

Greater than 17.6 million people within the U.S. now live inside a mile of a fracked oil or gas well.

“The risks and harms of fracking for public health and the climate are real and growing,” said the authors of the compilation. “Despite the continuing challenges of exposure assessments, the outcomes of recent studies confirm and extend the validity of earlier findings.”

Based on the 577-page document, 79 percent of U.S. natural gas and 65 percent of crude oil is now produced by fracking, with greater than 17.6 million people living inside a mile of a fracked oil or gas well. The result, says the report, is a public health crisis.

U.S. energy firms have been under fire from environmentalists and public health advocates because the mid-2000s, when the U.S. fracking boom got underway. The opposition goes beyond concerns that emissions from natural gas contribute to climate change. Critics say that the cocktails of chemicals injected a mile or more underground to crack open gas-bearing fissures in shale threaten groundwater supplies — including drinking water — and that diesel fumes from trucks and generators on well pads erode air quality.

Commonly reported health effects which are increasingly linked to fracking include some cancers, low birth weight, disruptions to the endocrine system, nose bleeds, headaches, nausea, and weight gain.

Emissions from a hydraulic fracturing operation in Claysville, Pennsylvania.
AP Photo / Keith Srakocic

Outside the USA, concerns concerning the safety of fracking have prompted bans in France, Ireland, and Bulgaria and have led other countries or regions to put restrictions on the practice. In late October, Britain’s latest Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said he’ll proceed a national moratorium on fracking for natural gas, reversing a plan by his predecessor, Liz Truss, to lift the ban in an effort to curb soaring energy prices.

The industry says its well bores are built with multiple layers of steel and concrete, ensuring that chemical-laden water can’t escape into groundwater. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group for the natural gas industry, cites academic and government studies showing no clear evidence that fracking harms public health or contaminates groundwater with chemicals.

The coalition also argues that the increasing use of cleaner-burning natural gas, replacing coal and oil, helps to curb climate change by cutting carbon emissions. “Research confirms natural gas is safely and responsibly developed in Pennsylvania,” it said.

However the industry’s defenses are rebutted by recent research. In August, the Yale School of Public Health published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives that found children between the ages of two and 7 living near gas wells in 4 heavily fracked counties of southwestern Pennsylvania are two to 3 times more more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), essentially the most common sort of childhood leukemia, than children who don’t live near gas development.

A latest study found an increased risk of early death amongst elderly people living near or downwind of fracking operations.

The study examined almost 2,500 children statewide. It found that 51 of them lived inside 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) of a gas well, and that 14 of those were diagnosed with the disease. Statewide, 405 were found to have the disease. Children whose homes at birth were inside that distance of a well were 1.98 times more more likely to develop the disease than those without gas wells near their homes, the study found. Children who lived inside 2,000 meters of a gas well in the course of the perinatal window – from three months prior to conception until birth – were 2.8 times more more likely to contract ALL than those that lived beyond that distance. Long-term survival rates of ALL are high, the study said, but victims may suffer associated illnesses including developmental and psychological problems.

The study suggested that individuals living near gas wells could also be exposed via drinking water to chemicals utilized in fracking — more formally referred to as unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) — or from spills of the hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater that’s pumped out of wells in the course of the process.

“This work adds to mounting evidence of UOGD’s impacts on children’s health, providing additional support for limiting UOGD near residences,” the paper said.

The study’s senior writer, Nicole Deziel, an associate professor of epidemiology on the Yale School of Public Health, urged firms and regulators to contemplate increasing the space between gas wells and houses, on condition that the young ALL patients were found inside a distance that’s greater than ten times the 500-foot minimum required by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s time that states revisit setbacks to reflect the brand new research,” she said.

A natural gas fracking well pad in Valencia, Pennsylvania.

A natural gas fracking well pad in Valencia, Pennsylvania.
AP Photo /Ted Shaffrey

The Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based outside Pittsburgh that advocates for public health within the context of shale-gas impacts, recommends setbacks of no less than 0.6 miles between homes and smaller shale gas facilities like wells or compressor stations; 1.25 miles or more for larger gas facilities; and 1.25 miles for schools, nursing homes, or other places that house vulnerable populations.

One other study published in January from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found an increased risk of early death amongst elderly people living near or downwind of UOGD. The study, which examined greater than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in all major U.S. gas development regions between 2001 and 2015, determined people’s exposure level to fracking-related air pollutants based on whether or not they were living near a gas well or downwind from it, after which adjusted for social, environmental, and demographic aspects.

Published within the journal Nature Energy, the paper found that subjects who lived closest to wells had a 2.5 percent higher mortality risk than those that didn’t live near wells, and that those that lived near wells and likewise downwind had a better risk of early death than those that lived upwind.

“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of individuals’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, lead writer of the study, in an announcement.

Despite the industry pushback, says one Pennsylvania doctor, there’s not any doubt that fracking harms human health.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition challenged the conclusions of each university studies, saying they relied on statistical modeling slightly than actual exposure, and it accused them of in search of to discredit the natural gas industry. “As these so-called studies are published, we must see them for what they so-often are: Efforts to advance an anti-natural gas agenda, drive more dollars to already well-funded activist organizations, and in fact — function web click-bait,” the coalition said in an announcement reacting to the Yale study.

Alison Steele, executive director of Environmental Health Project, dismissed the coalition’s attack on the studies. “I don’t think there’s any legitimacy in calling a well-conducted, peer-reviewed study click-bait,” she said.

The industry coalition cited earlier studies, including one by Duke University in 2017, which found no evidence of groundwater contamination over three years, and one other by Pennsylvania State University in 2018, which reported no deterioration in groundwater chemistry in Bradford County, a heavily fracked area of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Despite the industry pushback, argued Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, there’s not any doubt that fracking hurts human health. “There are enough studies now that show that fracking threatens the health of employees and communities and threatens the mental and physical health of people that work nearby and kids who go to high school nearby,” he said. “There’s enough of those associations now between fracking and bad health outcomes that needs to be informing regulators, politicians, and industry that there must be a greater way.”

Active unconventional, or fracked, gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Lively unconventional, or fracked, gas wells in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

But he cautioned that the studies show correlation, not causation. “These are all epidemiologic studies, and people aren’t designed to indicate causation,” he said. “They only show association; they’re taking a look at risk.”

That doesn’t weaken their validity as indicators of the hazards of fracking, said Steele of the Environmental Health Project. “When you’re taking a look at the consistently growing body of evidence, you might be over time seeing a clearer and clearer picture that there are adversarial health outcomes that are inclined to be higher in proximity to several types of shale infrastructure,” she said. “There isn’t a reason to not be concerned by what it’s showing.”

In Pennsylvania, said Ketyer, the gas industry fights efforts to research fracking’s impacts on public health. Pressure from industry, he claims, recently led officials from the state’s Department of Health and the University of Pittsburgh to drop out of a planned public meeting to update residents of southwestern Pennsylvania on the status of three ongoing studies of fracking and health by university researchers.

Individuals who live near gas wells and blame their illnesses on them are still searching for specific evidence of what caused their ailments.

Although the state-contracted studies aren’t complete, Ketyer contends that gas industry officials were sufficiently concerned about possible negative conclusions that they persuaded state and university officials to keep away from the meeting. To protest the absence of officials on the meeting, Ketyer resigned from a board that advises the studies. The University of Pittsburgh confirmed that its researchers didn’t attend the meeting; the Pennsylvania Department of Health didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Despite the mounting research, individuals who live near gas wells and blame their illnesses on pollution from the rigs are still searching for specific evidence of what caused their ailments. Until two months ago, Abby Tennant, her husband Scott, and their daughter Piper, 13, lived in Wetzel County, West Virginia. Their house was a couple of quarter mile from a gas well pad containing eight wells, one compressor station, and 4 storage tanks for fracking wastewater.

Tennant said she and her daughter began to feel unwell after the pad was in-built 2010 by EQT, an independent natural-gas production company, which didn’t reply to a reporter’s request for comment. Her symptoms — which included nausea, shortness of breath, chest pain, and dramatic weight gain — worsened in late 2020 after no less than one in every of several tanks holding fracking wastewater leaked. After the family moved to a house about 40 miles away, she said, her symptoms eased.

Tennant said her doctors have been unable or unwilling to link her family’s symptoms to fracking, but she has no considered returning to the family home, where her husband has lived all his life. Nor will she sell the home, despite receiving offers, because she doesn’t want anyone else to be exposed to the well pad’s emissions. “I is not going to be answerable for one other family going through that,” she said.

Corrections, November 18, 2022: An earlier version of this text incorrectly stated that a Yale School of Public Health study examined 2,500 children living inside 2,000 meters of a gas well in Pennsylvania. In truth, the study examined 2,500 children statewide. Also, on account of an editing error, this text previously stated incorrectly that the University of Pittsburgh didn’t reply to a request for comment. In truth, the university did respond.


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