Researchers inestigating a link between gas drilling well density and health care use found that hospitalizations for neurological illness, heart conditions, and other conditions were higher among people who live near hydraulic fracturing gas and oil drilling. Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, during the past ten years in the United States has experienced a massive increase.

The increases in well drilling, has sparked concern for potential air and water pollution posing a health threat for nearby residents.

The study, from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, looked through databases of more than 198,000 hospitalizations and assessed the top 25 medical categories, as per the Pennsylvania Health Cost Containment Council.

Senior author Reynold Panettieri, Jr., MD, a professor of Medicine and CEET deputy director, said:

“This study captured the collective response of residents to hydraulic fracturing in zip codes within the counties with higher well densities. At this point, we suspect that residents are exposed to many toxicants, noise, and social stressors due to hydraulic fracturing near their homes and this may add to the increased number of hospitalizations. This study represents one of the most comprehensive to date to link health effects with hydraulic fracturing."

Two of the three northeastern Pennsylvania counties examined, Bradford and Susquehanna, experienced significant increase in drilling activity during the study period. Wayne, the control county, had no drilling activity because of a ban on drilling due to proximity to the Delaware River watershed.

Although the study did find associations with hospitalization, this link is not direct proof that hydraulic fracturing is causally related to any health problems.

For example, the raised incidence of cardiology hospitalizations could be related to an increased exposure to air pollution, like diesel exhaust and fine particulate matter. This would require personal monitoring studies to measure exposure to specific toxicants, Panettieri notes.

The study showed that cardiology and neurologic inpatient prevalence rates, in other words, the proportion of a population found to have been hospitalized per 100 residents per year, were significantly higher in areas closer to active wells, as determined by the proximity of wells to a person’s home and their density as defined by the number of active wells per square kilometer.

Also, increased neurologic inpatient prevalence rates were associated with higher well density. Hospitalizations for skin conditions, cancer, and urologic problems were also associated with the proximity of dwellings to active wells.

The study was supported by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Jemielita T, Gerton GL, Neidell M, Chillrud S, Yan B, Stute M, et al. (2015) Unconventional Gas and Oil Drilling Is Associated with Increased Hospital Utilization Rates. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131093. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131093

Photo: Lock the Gate Alliance/flickr

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