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Living Near Fracking Site Increases Health Risks, Study Shows

Jul 21, 2015

An article newly published in the open access journal PLOS One indicates that people who live near hydraulic fracturing drilling sites have a higher rate of hospital use.

Researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine determined that those who live near fracking sites have a greater incidence of heart conditions, neurological illnesses, and cancer.

The researchers analyzed 198,000 hospitalization records in three northern Pennsylvania counties over the four-year period from 2007 to 2011, Pulse Headlines reports. Using 25 medical categories, the researchers associated hospital cases with the patient's proximity to a fracking area.

The results indicated that there were a larger number of hospitalization cases in areas where fracking takes place. In18 zip code areas with a well density higher than 0.79 wells per square kilometer, people living in the area had a 27 percent higher risk of suffering from one of these serious medical conditions.

The researchers write that their "data suggests that some but not all medical categories were associated with increases in number of wells, along with increases in well density. Specifically, cardiology inpatient prevalence rates were significantly associated with number of wells and well density, while neurology inpatient prevalence rates were significantly associated with well density," and they say well density was positively associated within the medical categories of dermatology, endocrine, neurology, oncology, urology, as well as overall inpatient prevalence rates (p = < 0.05). The researchers say they were struck by the fact that these differences were observable within a short period-just four years. "To have any association within a brief time frame may forebode greater negative health effects over time," the authors write.

Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), the Environmental Protection Agency explains, is the underground injection of fluid under pressure to break apart shale and release oil and natural gas reserves. Fracking is controversial because of the dangers in the process itself and the potential risks to the environment, including air pollution from chemicals and fuels used in fracking and contamination of drinking water. Fracking requires large volumes of water, raising concerns not only about the impact on water supplies in areas near fracking operations but also about the disposal of wastewater from fracking. Many communities have fought the growth of fracking. Denton, Texas, banned fracking because of health concerns, as have the states of New York and California, Pulse Headlines reports. Oklahoma residents have called for a fracking ban in their state.

The researchers say the precise cause of the increase in inpatient rates within specific medical categories remains unknown. Because the inpatient prevalence rates were determined for subjects who resided within a zip code, transient drilling workers whose addresses were not local were excluded and thus, the data may underestimate hospital use for those who were not Pennsylvania residents.

The researchers say their study "also supports the concept that health care utilization should be factored into the value (costs and benefits) of hydraulic fracturing over time."

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