Neighbors with the most exposure to natural gas fracking are nearly twice as likely to suffer from some combination of migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms, and severe fatigue.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence linking fracking—formally known as hydraulic fracturing—to health problems.
“These three health conditions can have debilitating impacts on people’s lives,” says Aaron W. Tustin, a resident physician in environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study that is published in in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “In addition, they cost the health care system a lot of money. Our data suggest these symptoms are associated with proximity to the fracking industry.”
Fracking involves injecting millions of liters of water into wells to fracture deep rock formations and liberate natural gas or petroleum. Energy companies moved toward fracking in the early 2000s when natural gas prices were high and supplies were low.
For the new study, researchers in 2014 questioned 7,785 adult primary care patients of Geisinger Health System, which covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The researchers found that 23 percent of respondents suffered from migraines, 25 percent experienced severe fatigue, and 24 percent had symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis (defined as three or more months of nasal and sinus symptoms).
The researchers used publicly available data to estimate participants’ exposure to fracking wells. Their models accounted for the size and number of wells, as well as the distance between wells and people’s homes. While no single health condition was associated with proximity to active wells, those who met criteria for two or more of the health conditions were nearly twice as likely as others to live closer to more or larger wells.
“We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,” says the study’s senior author Brian S. Schwartz, professor of environmental health sciences. “We need to find a way to better understand the correlation and, hopefully, do something to protect the health of these people.”
Previous research has linked the fracking industry to increases in premature births, asthma attacks, and indoor radon concentrations.
There are plausible explanations for how fracking could cause these health conditions. Well development generates air pollution, which could provoke nasal and sinus symptoms. It also produces odors, noise, bright lights, and heavy truck traffic. Any of these stressors could increase the risk of symptoms. Odors are known, for instance, to trigger migraine headaches in some individuals.
Pennsylvania has embraced the industry. Over 9,000 fracking wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past decade. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded rapidly in recent years in states such as Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Ohio. New York has banned fracking and Maryland has delayed well production until at least October 2017.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Robert Wood Johnson, the Degenstein Foundation, and the National Science Foundation funded the work.
Source: Johns Hopkins University