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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Maryland Study Shows How Hazard-Ranking System Assists in Evaluating Potential Public Health Risks of Fracking

Following their release of a state-commissioned study on the potential public health impacts of fracking in Western Maryland, University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers have published a paper describing the system they developed for assessing and ranking those risks.


While other states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have already begun drilling along the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, the Maryland government awaits direction from the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission before deciding whether and how to tap the state’s natural resource.

Recent growth of and political demand for unconventional natural gas development and production (UNGDP) has outpaced research into the risks those efforts pose for population health, according to the team of environmental health researchers who worked on the Maryland Marcellus Shale Public Health Study. Their recent manuscript, published in the journal PLOS One, describes the hazard ranking methodology developed to assess the potential public health impacts of UNGDP, using three examples from the project’s October 2014 final report. Devon Payne-Sturges, assistant professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) and Meleah Boyle, project manager for MIAEH, were lead authors of the study.

“We felt it was important to publish the assessment methodology so other researchers and communities could benefit from a systematic public health evaluation process, which they could easily adapt for any other proposed UNGPD or resource extractive development projects,” said Dr. Payne-Sturges. “So often decisions made in sectors outside of the traditional health care sector rarely consider linkages to health, and this leaves open the potential for unintended consequences. Our methodology brings public health to the table.”

Of particular importance to the research team was developing a system that would be simple to communicate.

“We wanted a way to explain our findings to the community and policymakers that was clear and easy to understand,” Ms. Boyle said.

The study looked at two Maryland counties, Allegany and Garrett, though its authors say their methodology can be expanded to examine other areas. Researchers conducted an extensive scoping process, including site visits and literature review to identify specific hazards to address in a Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Hazards were organized into eight categories that would specifically impact the unique populations of Allegany and Garrett counties : 1) air quality, 2) water quality (including water quality, soil quality, and naturally occurring radiological materials), 3) noise, 4) earthquakes, 5) social determinants of health (e.g. crime, injuries, mental health, sexually transmitted infections, and substance abuse), 6) occupational health, 7) healthcare infrastructure, and 8) cumulative exposures and risk.

The final impact assessment methodology, modified from an existing HIA, consisted of a qualitative ranking and scoring system across those eight categories. Researchers also added a color-coded system to rank evaluations in terms of the potential risk of impact to public health: Each of the hazards was assessed according to established criteria, and assigned a score, which was then summed to produce a qualitative ranking: High, Moderately High, or Low levels of negative public health impact.

Air quality, healthcare infrastructure, the social determinants of health, and occupational health were ranked as High Concern; water quality, noise, traffic and cumulative risk were ranked as Moderately High Concern; and earthquake was ranked as Low Concern for their potential to negatively impact public health.

The manuscript uses three examples — air quality, water quality and healthcare infrastructure — to illustrate in detail how researchers applied the ranking method to each hazard.

“Should Maryland decided to move forward with UNGDP, our hazard ranking and overall report provided a set of recommendations that will minimize public health impacts,” wrote the study’s authors. “Our approach can be easily adapted by other communities facing similar situations as well as in other settings that entails making decisions with limited information.”

The article Hazard Ranking Methodology for Assessing Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Production: The Maryland Case Study was published in PLOS ONE