This story was originally published by For E360 and is reproduced here as part of Climate desk cooperation.
Almost 20 years since the adoption of hydraulic fracturing began to increase oil and gas production in the US, there has been mounting evidence of a link between the industry’s activities and a range of health problems ranging from childhood cancer and premature death in the elderly to respiratory problems and endocrine disruption.
While the oil and gas industry insists its processes are safe and regulators have set rules designed to prevent air and water pollution from fracking technology, advocates for tighter restrictions on the practice or even a total ban are increasingly pointing to a number of studies , that fracking poses a threat to public health.
A Yale School of Public Health paper this summer found that children living near wells in Pennsylvania that use fracking to extract natural gas are two to three times more likely to contract a form of childhood leukemia than their peers , who live further away. This follows a Harvard study in January that found that elderly people living near or down the road from gas pads had a higher risk of premature death than elderly people who did not live in that vicinity.
In April, the New York-based nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals, which is made up of health professionals, scientists and medical organizations, released its latest compendium of investigations into the risks and harms associated with fracking. Since 2014, the compendium has collected 2,239 peer-reviewed articles that found evidence of harm, with almost 1,000 of these articles published since 2018.
“The risks and harms of fracking to public health and the climate are real and growing,” the compilation’s authors said. “Despite the ongoing challenges of exposure assessments, the results of recent studies confirm and extend the validity of earlier findings.”
According to the 577-page document, 79 percent of U.S. natural gas and 65 percent of crude oil is now produced through fracking, with more than 17.6 million people living within a mile of a fracking oil or gas well. The result, the report says, is a public health crisis.
American energy companies have been criticized by environmentalists and public health advocates since the mid-2000s, when the U.S. fracking boom began. Opposition goes beyond concerns that natural gas emissions contribute to climate change. Critics say the cocktails of chemicals injected a mile or more underground to blow open gas-bearing fissures in shale are threatening groundwater supplies — including drinking water — and that diesel fumes from trucks and well generators are worsening air quality.
Commonly reported health effects increasingly associated with fracking include certain cancers, low birth weight, endocrine disruption, nosebleeds, headaches, nausea and weight gain.
Outside the United States, concerns about the safety of fracking have prompted bans in France, Ireland and Bulgaria, and prompted other countries or regions to impose restrictions on the practice. In late October, Britain’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said he would continue a national moratorium on natural gas fracking, reversing his predecessor Liz Truss’ plan to lift the ban in an effort to curb rising energy prices.
The industry says its boreholes are built with multiple layers of steel and concrete, ensuring that chemical-laden water cannot escape into the groundwater. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group for the natural gas industry, 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, which replaces coal and oil, helps limit climate change by reducing carbon emissions. “Research confirms that natural gas is being developed safely and responsibly in Pennsylvania,” it said.
But the industry’s defenses have been refuted by recent research. In August, the Yale School of Public Health published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives which found that children between the ages of two and seven years living near gas wells in four heavily fracked counties of southwestern Pennsylvania were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common the common type of childhood leukemia than children who do not live near gas fields.
A new study found an increased risk of early death among older adults living near or downwind of fracking operations.
The study surveyed almost 2,500 children across the country. It found that 51 of them lived within 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) of a gas well and that 14 of them had been diagnosed with the disease. Nationwide, 405 have been found to have the disease. Children whose homes were this far from a well at birth were 1.98 times more likely to develop the disease than those without gas wells near their homes, the study found. Children who lived within 2,000 meters of a gas well during the perinatal window – from three months before conception to birth – were 2.8 times more likely to contract ALL than those who lived beyond distance. Long-term survival rates for ALL are high, the study said, but victims may suffer from associated illnesses, including developmental and psychological problems.
The study suggests that people living near gas wells could be exposed through drinking water to chemicals used in fracking — more formally known as unconventional oil and gas development — or from spills of millions of gallons of wastewater that pumped from wells during the process. “This work adds to the growing body of evidence on the impact of UOGD on children’s health, providing further support for limiting UOGD near homes,” the paper said.
The study’s lead author, Nicole Desiel, an 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, given that the young ALL patients were found at a distance that was greater than 10 times the 500-foot minimum required by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s time for states to review the failures to reflect the new research,” she said.
The Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit organization based out of Pittsburgh that advocates for public health in the context of shale gas impacts, recommends a separation of at least 0.6 miles between homes and smaller shale gas facilities such as wells or compressor stations ; 1.25 miles or more for larger gas facilities; and 1.25 miles for schools, nursing homes or other places housing vulnerable populations.
Another study published in January by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found an increased risk of early death among older adults living near or downstream from a UOGD. The study, which surveyed more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in all major U.S. gas development regions between 2001 and 2015, determined people’s level of exposure to fracking-related air pollutants based on whether they live near or downstream from a gas well, and then adjusted for social, environmental and demographic factors.
Published in magazine Natural energy, the paper found that subjects living closest to wells had a 2.5% higher risk of mortality than those not living near wells, and that those living near wells and also downwind , have a higher risk of early death than those who lived upwind. “Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health hazards of locating UOGD near people’s homes or upwind,” Longxiang Li, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition disputed the conclusions of the two university studies, saying they relied on statistical modeling rather than actual exposure, and accused them of seeking to discredit the natural gas industry. “As these so-called studies are published, we need to see them for what they so often are: Efforts to advance an anti-natural gas agenda, funnel more dollars to already well-funded activist organizations, and of course, serve as internet clickbait,” the coalition said in a statement in response to the Yale study.
Alison Steele, executive director of the Environmental Health Project, rejected the coalition’s attack on the studies. “I don’t think there’s any legitimacy in calling a well-conducted, peer-reviewed study clickbait,” she said.
The industry coalition cited earlier studies, including one from Duke University in 2017 that found no evidence of groundwater contamination over three years, and another from Pennsylvania State University in 2018 that reported no deterioration of groundwater chemistry in Bradford County, a highly fractured area of northeastern Pennsylvania.
Despite industry pushback, says Dr. Ned Ketier, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, there is no longer any doubt that fracking harms human health. “There is now enough research to show that fracking threatens the health of workers and communities and endangers the mental and physical health of people who work nearby and children who go to school nearby,” he said. “There are now enough of these associations between fracking and poor health outcomes to inform regulators, policymakers and industry that there has to be a better way.”