Residents and doctors in Western Pennsylvania have been raising concerns for years about the dangers of fracking for fossil fuels.
A Harvard study today links fracking to senior citizens’ early deaths.
The Harvard T.H. researchers published their findings in Nature Energy, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The Chan School of Public Health blames an assortment of airborne contaminants that are associated with unconventional oil and gas development. This is when companies use horizontal drilling to fracture underground rocks to release fossil fuels. This process is called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
The study found that the risk of premature death was higher for those 65 years and older who lived closer to wells. Researchers found that seniors who lived near wells had a 2.5 percent lower risk of early death than those who didn’t.
The study also showed that seniors who live downwind of wells are at an equal risk of premature deaths to those who live upwind. Researchers did not estimate the number of premature deaths or the length of life.
Still, the authors said it’s the first study to link mortality among those 65 and older with air pollution from fracking wells.
“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating (unconventional oil and gas development) near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral fellow in the school’s Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study.
Researchers found that air pollution can be caused by a variety activities around oil and gas wells, resulting in an increase in exposure to volatile organic compounds, natural radiation and nitrogen oxides.
These activities can include pad building, well drilling, hydraulic fracture, and fossil fuel generation. The polluting equipment and diesel trucks used to drill the pads and force the fracking fluids into the ground emit pollutants. Flaring, which is the burning of unwanted fossil fuels, can also release pollutants.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the industry’s release of volatile organic compounds is a major contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, which is linked to aggravated asthma, increased emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and premature death. The EPA proposes to increase and strengthen emissions reduction requirements for new and modified natural gas and oil sources.
The study will be used to spark political debates on the health effects and climate change of a controversial method to extract fossil fuels.
While Li acknowledged socioeconomic benefits for people living in fracking areas, he said “what we are trying to do is provide good evidence for the policy makers. To make good policy, you need to know both sides, the risks and the benefits.”
“We are not policymakers,” he added.
The study’s conclusions are no surprise to Dr. Edward C. Ketyer, a pediatrician from Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, who has been sounding the alarm about health effects from a fracking boom that transformed the economy and character of southwest Pennsylvania over the last 15 years.
“Living in Southwest Pennsylvania in the middle of the Marcellus Shale region, we have all read the studies on the known health impacts from living near oil and gas operations,” said Ketyer, president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “There have been good studies that have been replicated” on poor birth outcomes, premature births, low birth weights and complications with pregnancies, he said, and also “good data” that shows people living near fracking operations have higher risk of hospitalizations, migraine headaches and upper respiratory tract infections.
“And we are still very concerned about the issue of a spike in rare childhood cancers,” he said, referring to Ewing sarcoma, which is still under investigation in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh.
“There have been plenty of public health studies, at least 10 or 20 in the scientific literature, that have looked at various impacts on public health” from fracking, said Gunnar W. Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University whose research focus includes hydrocarbons emitted by the oil and gas industry in Texas and elsewhere.
He said that he wasn’t familiar with the Harvard study details but the results appear to be consistent and consistent with others who have found health consequences from proximity to sources of exposure like wells. He said that although there isn’t enough exposure data to make stronger connections that the problem is, he said that he is part a new research effort to do so.
Without knowing more about what pollutants people were exposed to and at what levels, research conclusions remain based on indirect or proxy measurement, giving industry supporters “plausible deniability” of the problem.
Mike Sommers, chief executive of American Petroleum Institute, a lobby organization, has argued that the American Petroleum Institute’s national gas boom has led to a better air quality in America.
And last fall, API Vice President Kevin O’Scannlain testified during an EPA hearing that the institute supported new air pollution regulations on oil and gas production but urged the agency “to carefully consider the availability and cost of equipment, labor and other required resources needed to comply with the proposed standards.”
The Harvard scientists admitted that they could not determine the cause of premature deaths due to air pollutants.
“There are almost no (air pollution) monitoring stations near the fracking wells,” Li said. “Almost all the monitoring stations are in urban areas.”
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However, the authors noted that fracking has grown rapidly and that more than 100,000 wells were drilled using directional drilling in combination with fracking as of 2015. The new methods are more expensive than conventional oil and gas drilling and require more water and chemicals.
Despite being unconventional, drilling has become one of the most popular in the United States.
According to the study, 17.6 million people live within a half-mile of at least one active water source. Researchers studied a cohort consisting of more than 15,000,000 Medicare beneficiaries (people 65 and older) who lived in all major U.S. oil and gas regions from 2001 to 2015. They also collected data from records of more than 2.5million oil and gas wells. They used two different statistical methods to calculate people’s exposures, while adjusting the findings for socioeconomic, environmental and demographic factors.
“There is an urgent need to understand the causal link between living near or downwind of (unconventional oil and gas development) and adverse health effects,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard professor of biostatistics and one of ten co-authors of the study.
Dominici was the senior author of a major study last year that quantified how fine particle pollution during wildfires led to excessive Covid-19 deaths and cases in the U.S.
Source: Inside Climate News