Unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), better known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has expanded dramatically around the world over the last 20 years.
In parallel, so have concerns over its health impact on people living nearby. These come from air, water, and soil pollution, ionizing radiation and more.
Now, for the first time, environmental scientists from Harvard show those living near or downwind of a fracking site are at higher risk of an early demise.
Conventional gas wells are drilled vertically but fracking is different. After drilling down to between 7,000 and 10,000 feet, the rig turns horizontal to drill for another 2,000 to 10,000 feet.
Compared to conventional drilling, the construction period is longer, it occupies a larger area, and up to 6,000 diesel truck trips are needed to build each well. In addition, it uses larger volumes of water, chemicals, and other materials.
A recent review from researchers at Johns Hopkins revealed that residents living near a site are in greater danger of high-risk pregnancy, pre-term birth, nasal and sinus inflammation, migraine, severe fatigue, dermal and respiratory symptoms, exacerbation of asthma, and psychological and stress-related conditions.
But up until now, fracking’s effect on lifespan was unknown.
Millions of Americans are at Risk
For their study, the Harvard researchers gathered data on more than 15 million people aged 65 and older living in all major fracking regions of the US between 2001 and 2015. They also collected data on more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells.
From this wealth of data, they were able to calculate exposure to pollutants from living close to or downwind of a site.
After adjusting the findings to account for peoples’ age, as well as socioeconomic and demographic factors, they found the closer to a UOGD well people lived, the greater the risk of premature death. Those living the closest to the site had a significantly elevated risk (2.5 percent higher) of premature death compared to those not living close to a well.
What’s more, those who lived both close and downwind of these wells were at a higher risk of premature death than those living upwind when both groups were compared to unexposed people.
The research, published in the journal Nature Energy in January, concluded, “Our results suggest that primary air pollutants sourced from unconventional oil and gas exploration can be a major exposure pathway with adverse health effects in the elderly.”
The types of pollution causing harm and precisely which pollutants were being emitted from where couldn’t be determined from the study. In other words, the pollutants could come from well emissions, site equipment or truck traffic. But whatever the source and type of pollution, it’s cause for concern for the 17.6 million Americans who live within a thousand yards of at least one active fracking site.
Senior author Petros Koutrakis suggested residents use air purifiers and run them “continually inside your house.”
Dr. Koutrakis was also involved in an earlier study that looked at radioactivity levels coming from fracking sites. He found more bad news…
Radiation Rises up 40 Percent
Dr. Koutrakis and his colleagues collected data from 157 radiation-monitoring stations located across the U.S. between 2001 and 2017 and compared the findings with the position and production records of 120,000 fracking wells.
They found that areas within a distance of 12 miles downwind of the wells had radiation levels that were seven percent above normal background levels.
But in areas closer to drill sites or where there’s a higher concentration of sites, readings can rise to 40 percent above normal background levels in the worst affected areas.
Dr. Koutrakis said, “If you asked me to go and live downwind [of fracking sites] I would not go. People should not go crazy, but I think it’s a significant risk that needs to be addressed.”
This news is no surprise. We’ve long followed the science on the negative impact that environmental toxins in our air, food, water—and even our homes—have on our health. We know that certain toxins and exposure to radiation can cause inflammation and illnesses like cancer.
This new study is just another nail in the coffin for those who say that environmental toxins don’t matter much to human health. And it’s more motivation for you to be well-educated about what’s going on in the neighborhoods where you live and work and take steps to protect yourself.