Study findings from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggest that people with asthma who live near natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry are 1.5 to four times likelier to have asthma attacks than those who live farther away.
The findings were published on July 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine and add to a growing body of evidence associating fracking with health concerns, MedicalXpress reports.
Public health officials have expressed concern about the effect of this drilling technique on air and water quality. Residents near fracking sites also suffer the stress of increased noise and traffic in fracking areas.
Study leader Sara G. Rasmussen, a PhD candidate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, said this is the first study to look at asthma, but “we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells.”
Rasmussen and her colleagues analyzed health records from 2005 through 2012 from the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The fracking industry has developed more than 9,000 wells in Pennsylvania in just the past decade.
The researchers identified more than 35,000 asthma patients between the ages of five and 90 years. They identified 20,749 mild attacks (requiring a corticosteroid prescription), 1,870 moderate ones (requiring an emergency room visit) and 4,782 severe attacks (requiring hospitalization), MedicalXpress reports. The researchers compared patients who had attacks and those who did not based on where they lived and on distance from and characteristics of fracking wells.
Those who lived closer to a large number or bigger active natural gas wells were significantly more likely—1.5 to four times more likely—to suffer asthma attacks. And while these asthma attacks were likely to occur more frequently around wells throughout all phases of development, the risk was greater during the production phase, which can last many years. The findings accounted for other factors that can exacerbate asthma, including proximity to major roads, family history, smoking, and socioeconomics, according to MedicalXpress.
While the new study cannot say why asthma attacks are more likely to occur for people closer to more or larger wells, the researchers say air pollution and increased stress from the noise and traffic could play a role. Previous research has implicated stress as a factor that 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, “We believe it is time to take a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts.”
Fracking has drawn scrutiny over environmental and health impacts. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves injecting large quantities water mixed with sand and chemicals to fracture the shale layer. There are concerns about the proper disposal of the fluids and about possible release of pollutants. Fracking has been associated with an increase in earthquake activity in some heavily fracked areas.
Some states and localities have banned fracking or placed a moratorium on such drilling while health, environmental, and community impact issues are further studied.