This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the climate desk Cooperation.
Almost 20 years After the introduction of hydraulic fracturing began to boost US oil and gas production, there is growing evidence linking the industry’s activities to a range of health problems ranging from childhood cancer and the premature deaths of the elderly to respiratory problems and endocrine disorders range.
While the oil and gas industry insists its processes are safe and regulators have enacted regulations to prevent air and water contamination from “fracking” technology, advocates for tighter restrictions on the practice or even a total ban have been advocated indicate an increase Numerous studies indicate that fracking is a public health hazard.
A study this summer by the Yale School of Public Health showed that children living near wells in Pennsylvania that use fracking to extract natural gas were two to three times more likely to develop some form of childhood leukemia than their peers who did live further away. This was followed by a Harvard study in January that found that older people living near or downwind from gas fields are at greater risk of premature death than older people who don’t live close by.
In April, the nonprofit organization Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, made up of health professionals, scientists and medical organizations, released its latest compendium of research into the risks and harms associated with fracking. Since 2014, the Compendium has counted 2,239 peer-reviewed papers that found evidence of damage, with nearly 1,000 of those papers published since 2018.
“The risks and harms of fracking to public health and the climate are real and growing,” the authors of the compilation said. “Despite the ongoing challenges in exposure assessment, the results of recent studies confirm and extend the validity of previous findings.”
According to the 577-page document, 79 percent of US natural gas and 65 percent of crude oil are now produced through fracking, with more than 17.6 million people living within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well. The result, the report said, is a public health crisis.
US energy companies have come under fire from environmentalists and public health advocates since the mid-2000s, when the fracking boom began in the US. The opposition goes beyond concerns that emissions from natural gas contribute to climate change. Critics say the chemical cocktails, which are injected a mile or more underground to open gas-carrying fissures in the shale, threaten groundwater supplies — including potable water — and that diesel exhaust from trucks and generators on well pads is eroding air quality.
Commonly reported health effects increasingly associated with fracking include some cancers, low birth weight, endocrine disorders, nosebleeds, headaches, nausea and weight gain.
Outside the United States, concerns about the safety of fracking have led to bans in France, Ireland, and Bulgaria, and prompted other countries or regions to restrict the practice. In late October, Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he would continue a national moratorium on natural gas fracking, reversing a plan by his predecessor Liz Truss to lift the ban to curb rising energy prices.
The industry says its wellbores are built with multiple layers of steel and concrete to ensure chemical-contaminated water can’t seep into groundwater. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based natural gas trade group, cites academic and government studies that show no clear evidence that fracking harms public health or contaminates groundwater with chemicals.
The coalition also argues that increasing use of cleaner-burning natural gas instead of coal and oil is helping curb climate change by lowering carbon emissions. “Research confirms that natural gas is being developed safely and responsibly in Pennsylvania,” it said.
But the industry’s defenses are belied by recent research. In August, the Yale School of Public Health published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives Children between the ages of two and seven who live near gas wells in four heavily fracked counties in southwestern Pennsylvania are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of childhood leukemia as children who do not live near the gas development.
A new study found an increased risk of early death among elderly people living near or downwind from fracking operations.
The study looked at nearly 2,500 children nationwide. It turned out that 51 of them lived within 2,000 meters (6,561 ft) of a gas well and that 14 of them were diagnosed with the disease. Nationwide, 405 were found to have the disease. Children whose homes were this distance from a well at birth were 1.98 times more likely to contract the disease than children without a gas well near their homes, the study found. Children who lived within 2,000 meters of a gas source during the perinatal window — from three months before conception until birth — were 2.8 times more likely to develop ALL than those who lived further away. Long-term survival rates from ALL are high, according to the study, but victims can suffer from associated diseases, including developmental and mental health problems.
The study suggested that people living near gas wells could be exposed to chemicals used in fracking — better known as unconventional oil and gas exploration — via drinking water, or from the spilling of millions of gallons of sewage that is pumped from the wells during the process. “This work adds to the growing body of evidence on the impact of UOGD on children’s health and provides additional support for limiting UOGD near homes,” the paper said.
The study’s senior author, Nicole Deziel, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, urged companies and regulators to consider increasing the distance between gas wells and homes because the young ALL patients are at a greater distance were found to be more than 10 times the minimum of 500 feet required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s time for states to reconsider throwbacks to reflect the new research,” she said.
The Environmental Health Project, a non-profit organization based outside of Pittsburgh that works to address public health issues related to the effects of shale gas, recommends a minimum 0.6-mile setback between homes and smaller shale gas facilities such as wells or compressor stations; 1.25 miles or more for larger gas installations; and 1.25 miles for schools, nursing homes or other locations hosting vulnerable populations.
Another study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, published in January, found an increased risk of early death among older people living near or downwind of UOGD. The study, which examined more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in all major U.S. natural gas regions between 2001 and 2015, determined people’s exposure to fracking-related air pollutants based on whether they were near a gas well or downwind of it lived. and then adjusted for social, environmental, and demographic factors.
Published in the magazine energy of nature, the study found that subjects who lived near wells had a 2.5 percent greater risk of death than those who did not live near wells, and that those who lived near wells and also downwind had a higher risk of early death than those who lived upwind. “Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health hazards of placing UOGD near or downwind of people’s homes,” Longxiang Li, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition questioned the conclusions of both university studies, saying they relied on statistical models rather than actual exposure, and accused them of wanting to discredit the natural gas industry. “While these so-called studies are being released, we need to see them for what they so often are: efforts to advance an anti-gas agenda, drive more dollars to already well-funded activist organizations, and of course — serve as internet click-bait ‘ the coalition said in a statement in response to the Yale study.
Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, dismissed the coalition’s attack on the studies. “I don’t think it’s legitimate to call a well-conducted, peer-reviewed study clickbait,” she said.
The industry coalition cited previous studies, including a 2017 one by Duke University that found no evidence of groundwater contamination for over three years, and another by Pennsylvania State University in 2018 that found no deterioration in groundwater chemistry in Bradford County, a severe fracked area reported in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Despite the industry setback, Dr. Ned Ketyer, President of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, is no longer in doubt that fracking harms human health. “There are now enough studies to show that fracking threatens the health of workers and communities, and threatens the mental and physical health of people who work nearby and children who go to school nearby,” he said he. “There are now enough of these associations between fracking and bad health outcomes that should inform regulators, politicians and industry that there must be a better way.”