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Living Near Fracking Operations Increases Risk of Asthma Attacks

Jul 20, 2016

For people with asthma, living near a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling site increases the risk of an asthma attack.

New research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published on July 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that people with asthma who live near fracking sites are 1.5 to four times likelier to have asthma attacks than those who live farther away, Medical Xpress reports.

Public health and environmental officials have raised a range of concerns about the effects of this controversial drilling technique, including air and water quality impact. Sara G. Rasmussen, a PhD candidate in the Bloomberg School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences, who was the study's leader, said this the first study to consider fracking and asthma, but, Rasmussen said, "[W]e now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells."

Rasmussen and her colleagues analyzed information in 2005 to 2012 health records for patients in the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider for 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. In the past decade, the fracking industry has developed more than 9,000 wells in Pennsylvania in the past decade.

From Geisinger records, the research team identified more than 35,000 asthma patients, ranging in age from from five to 90. The records indicated that 20,749 suffered a mild attack (treated with a corticosteroid prescription), 1,870 had moderate attacks (requiring an emergency room visit), and 4,782 experienced a severe attack (requiring hospitalization), MedicalXpress reports. The researchers looked at where the patients lived-how far they were from a fracking site and the number wells and the type of well activity.

The Johns Hopkins team found that asthma patients who lived closer to a larger number of or larger active natural gas wells were significantly more likely-1.5 to four times more likely-to suffer asthma attacks. Though asthma attacks occurred at all phases of well development, the asthma risk was greater during the well's production phase, which can continue for years. In looking at the severity of asthma attacks, researchers took account of a variety of factors that can exacerbate asthma, including proximity to major roads, family history, smoking, and socioeconomics, according to MedicalXpress.

The new study cannot say why asthma attacks are more likely to occur for people closer to more or larger wells, but air pollution and increased stress from the noise and traffic at fracking sites could play a role. There is research that indicates that stress increases the risk of asthma attacks.

Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School, says the researchers believe it is time for "a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts."

Critics of fracking warn about serious environmental and health impacts. Fracking involves injecting large quantities water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture the shale layer and release oil and natural gas. Fracking places heavy demands on the local water supply and the process can release pollutants into the air, soil, and water. The safe disposal of chemical-laced fracking fluids is a major concern. Fracking operations have been associated with increased earthquake activity in some areas.

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