© 2021 WYPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

New Public Health Studies Link Fracking to Illness

fracking_site.jpg

  A growing number of scientific studies link hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Pennsylvania to health problems, including asthma attacks, sore throats, eye irritation, bloody noses and premature births.

The research is being cited by public health advocates in Maryland as evidence that the state should not allow fracking, which involves the blasting of water mixed with chemicals into shale rock formations to release gas.

A two year moratorium on fracking in Maryland expires in October of next year. A political fight is expected in this January’s General Assembly session over whether to open up the state to unconventional gas drilling.

The most recent study was led by researcher Sara Rasmussen at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She and colleagues examined data from the hospital records of more than 35,000 asthma patients across Pennsylvania and found that those who live near larger or more numerous fracking wells were 1.5 to four times more likely to suffer asthma attacks as patients who lived farther away.

"Communities undergoing unconventional natural gas development are exposed to a lot of stressors, including vibrations, light, noise, truck traffic and air pollution, and also stress from the rapid industrial development," Rasmussen said.  "So we think that sleep deprivation, exposure to air pollution (including from truck traffic), changes of socioeconomic status and stress are all what we would call biologically plausible ways for unconventional natural gas development to affect asthma."

Last October, Rasmussen and other Hopkins researchers examined hospital records in Pennsylvania and found that women who lived closest to the natural gas wells had a 40 percent greater chance of giving birth prematurely.

And a January 2015 survey of 492 residents of southwestern Pennsylvania by scientists with the Yale University School of Medicine found higher reported rates of nose bleeds, coughing, sore throats, itchy eyes, and skin irritation among people who live closer to fracking wells.

 The drilling industry dismisses the associations as unfounded.  A public relations blog funded by the industry, Energy In Depth, wrote in rebuttal to the Hopkins asthma study: "Asthma hospitalization rates in the top five shale counties in the study — Bradford (8.2), Tioga (5.7), Lycoming (7.3), Sullivan (4.4) and Susquehanna (9.7) — are far lower than nine counties in the study area with no shale production, all of which are above 11.2 per 10,000."

In response, Dr. Brian Schwartz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-author of the asthma report, wrote in an email:  "Why are rates of hospitalizations in fracking counties perhaps lower than in non-fracking counties? Because all the other causes of asthma BESIDES fracking are HIGHER in counties without fracking. These include causes like poverty, race/ethnicity, air pollution from cities, mice and cockroach allergens that are common in larger buildings, easier access to health care, etc."

Maryland State Senator Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, said the Hopkins study on asthma is just the most recent evidence in an expanding body of scientific research that justifies a permanent ban on fracking in Maryland. He said he will introduce such a bill in the upcoming session, as he has in past years.

"The study that you are talking about confirms a lot of things that others have been saying," said Zirkin.  "There are multiple countries around the world that have banned this.  The state of New York banned it.  There are a lot of states that are looking to do so.  And the reason is that it’s dangerous and it creates problems."

In advance of that legislative battle, several local governments in Maryland are voting to ban fracking, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as the towns of Friendsville and Mountain Lake Park in the western part of the state, where there is shale and so fracking is more likely.

"We want to keep fracking out of western Maryland because there are no places in the world where fracking and tourism mix," said Paul Roberts, a leader of Citizen Shale, a Western Maryland alliance. "Our economy is dependent on tourism, and we feel certain that fracking will destroy it." Supporters of fracking argue that it produces a fuel – natural gas – that emits less air pollution when burned than coal and makes America more energy independent.  But it’s tough to feel independent when you’re dependent on an asthma inhaler just to breathe.

To read a copy of the Hopkins asthma study, visit:
http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2534153

For a copy of the premature birth study, visit:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4738074/

For the Yale Medical School survey of health impacts linked to fracking, visit:
http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1307732/#tab1

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.