A study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University indicates that people who live near hydraulic fracturing drilling sites have a higher rate of hospitalizations for such issues as heart conditions, neurological illnesses, and cancer.
The research team was drawn from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. Their findings were based on analyses of hospitalization data for three Pennsylvania counties, and the article was published online last week in the journal PLOS One.
The researchers analyzed 198,000 hospitalization records in three northern Pennsylvania counties for 2007 to 2011, Pulse Headlines reports. They used 25 medical categories and associated hospital cases with the patient’s home’s proximity to a fracking site. The results indicated that there were a larger number of hospitalization cases in areas where fracking takes place. People living in 18 zip code areas with a well density higher than 0.79 wells per square kilometer had a 27 percent higher risk of suffering from one of the medical conditions.
In the article, the researchers say 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.” The authors say there was also a positive association with well density in the medical categories of dermatology, endocrine, neurology, oncology, urology, as well as overall inpatient prevalence rates (p = < 0.05). The researchers note the striking 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—fracking—is a controversial drilling technique. Fracking is the underground injection of fluid under pressure to break apart shale and release oil and natural gas reserves. The Environmental Protection Agency explains that fracking raises concerns 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 about the impact on local water supplies in fracking areas and about the disposal of the chemical-laced wastewater. Communities in many states have fought the rapid growth of fracking operations. Denton, Texas, banned fracking because of health concerns. New York and California have banned fracking, Pulse Headlines reports, and some Oklahoma residents have called for a fracking ban in their state.
The researchers say the precise cause of the increase in hospitalization rates remains unknown and needs further exploration. Because the inpatient prevalence rates were determined for subjects who resided within a zip code, transient drilling workers who did not provide addresses in those zip codes were excluded from the analysis and so the data may underestimate actual hospital use.
In their summary, the researchers say the study “also supports the concept that health care utilization should be factored into the value (costs and benefits) of hydraulic fracturing over time.”