Hospitalizations for heart conditions, neurological illness, and other conditions were higher among people who live near unconventional gas and oil drilling (hydraulic fracturing or fracking), according to new research from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the University of Pennsylvania. The study represents one of the most comprehensive to date linking health effects with hydraulic fracturing. Findings are published in PLOS One.
Over the past 10 years hydraulic fracturing has experienced a meteoric increase in the U.S. Due to substantial increases in well drilling, potential for air and water pollution posing a health threat has been a concern for nearby residents. To address this issue, researchers from two Environmental Health Science Core Centers of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — one based at Columbia and the other at Penn — examined the link between drilling well density and healthcare use by zip code in three northeastern Pennsylvania counties.
Using databases that contained over 198,000 hospitalizations, the researchers examined the top 25 specific medical categories for hospitalizations and found that two counties in northeastern Pennsylvania where wells were most dense showed a 27 percent increase in hospitalization rates for cardiology-related complaints such as stroke. In addition, there were increased inpatient prevalence rates for neurological illnesses and skin ailments. Hospitalizations for cancer and urologic problems were also associated with the proximity of dwellings to active wells in the two counties. A third county where fracking did not take place saw no such rises.
The increases corresponded with a meteoric rise in fracking between 2007 and 2011. Before 2007, overall hospitalization rates in all three counties had been trending downward.
The authors say that while the study does not prove that hydraulic fracturing actually caused these health problems, the hospitalization increases observed over the relatively short time span of observation suggests that healthcare costs of hydraulic fracturing must be factored into the economic benefits of unconventional gas and oil drilling.
“While the associations found in the study are suggestive of a relationship between fracking and health, more study is needed to determine whether these specific toxic substances are a cause of the rise in hospitalizations,” said Dr. Matthew Neidell, associate professor of health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health. “Furthermore, the findings document a potential harm from fracking that should be an important component of policy, although a more complete analysis that considers its harm relative to other sources of energy is needed.”
The research was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (P30-ES013508, P30-ES009089).