People Who Live Near Fracking More Likely to Become Sick, Largest Study of Its Kind Finds
The study, which tracked self-reported health data from 180 households containing 492 people in Pennsylvania’s Washington County, is the largest of its kind, lead author Peter Rabinowitz, M.D., who is now with the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told weather.com.
“We got interested in this issue because there were concerns that had been brought up about people complaining of some health symptoms when living near natural gas drilling or extraction facilities,” he said. “At the time we started this study, most of these reports were really just that: isolated case reports of a handful of individuals.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the practice of using highly pressurized blasts of water, chemicals and sand to extract natural gas from deep inside the earth. There are more than 1.1 million oil and gas wells across 36 states, according to data from the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities released last year. The practice’s environmental and health impacts have been hotly debated.
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Although the new data has its limits, as any study that relies on self-reported health information does, it’s an important first step toward a better public understanding of the health risks associated with fracking, the authors said. “[The study] does not prove that fracking is causing these health conditions, but in our mind it really reinforces the need for more research about the potential health impacts of natural extraction,” Dr. Rabinowitz explained. The study is published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
An expert who did not work on the study, Richard Jackson, M.D., the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, now the chair of the environmental health sciences department at UCLA, told weather.com this study is the first step. But more work needs to be done by the government and other entities to evaluate fracking.
“I would say we’ve got precious little information and genuine knowledge about the human health impacts of hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “Anything that is being practiced on such a large, enormous scale, near to where people live, and that has the potential for human health impacts, deserves to be scrutinized by health authorities. They’re obliged to be scrutinizing this much more aggressively than we have.”
Recently, studies have linked fracking to high arsenic levels in groundwater, as well as birth defects. In both cases, researchers stressed that their results are not conclusive, and that more work is needed, ThinkProgress.org reported.
Meanwhile, the natural gas industry considers the practice to be a safe way to bolster the U.S. economy, and lessen the national reliance on foreign energy sources.
Travis Windle, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the Yale study was “done in partnership with a local activist group, and was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative,” The Pittsburgh Tribune Review reported. Also on Wednesday, a Penn State study funded by industry groups found the practice to be safe, saying fracking water remains deep underground away from any groundwater supplies.
But the bottom line, Dr. Rabinowitz said, is we just don’t know. “We really don’t know objectively how the health of these communities is being affected by the natural gas drilling,” he said. “We don’t know about long-term health effect … we really just don’t know how much to worry, and how much not to worry.”