More Than Flaming Water: New Report Tracks Health Impacts of Fracking on Pennsylvania Residents’ Health

Is fracking dangerous for your health? Preliminary results from a new report suggest that flammable water isn’t the only thing the watch out for when living near natural gas operations.

Anyone who has seen Gasland 1 or 2 or likes disturbing YouTube videos is familiar with homeowners near natural gas wells lighting their tap water on fire, just to watch it burn. But besides high levels of methane in drinking water, which industry claim were there already, does fracking pose a serious threat to human health?

The answer is, we don’t yet conclusively know the if, the how, or to what extent. Both Gasland documentaries are full of interviews with residents, particularly in Pennsylvania, who suffer from a swath of ailments ranging from the unpleasant — nose bleeds, rashes, headaches, to the downright frightening — difficulty breathing, dizziness, chronic pain.

Fracking isn’t exactly new at this point, but the rapid expansion of wells is still fresh, and long-term health studies just aren’t available yet. This week, however, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP), a nonprofit which gathers data on the public health impacts of fracking, released some preliminary results from residents living in Washington County, PA.


SWPA-EHP found 27 cases of Washington County residents reporting health concerns related to drilling. Seven people complained of skin rashes, four said they suffered infections, three experienced headaches or dizziness and 13 complained of trouble breathing. This handful of cases is far from a complete survey of the area, just the first attempt at documenting illness associated with exposure to contaminated air and/or water.

Perhaps surprising in the results was that despite the proclivity of PA water to catch fire, the vast majority of reported health effects were related to exposure to air, not water. Only the skin rashes are believed to be caused by contaminated water. The study also suggests that natural gas processing stations seem to trigger more reported health problems than actual drilling sites, of which there are 700 in Washington County. In terms of number of active wells, Washington County comes in third for the state.

While some see these results as the beginning of documentation that will expose the true price tag of natural gas, others are quick to point out that anything that displaces coal and its fine soot, nitrous oxide, and sulfur dioxide pollution is a big positive for public health.

“There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution,” Michael Greenstone, professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the AP.

Clearly, there is still much more work to be done on the topic. In Pennsylvania alone, there are nearly 6,000 active natural gas wells, and an unknown number of abandoned or “lost” wells which may still leak methane into the air and local water supplies. Chesapeake Appalachia Llc, Range Resources Appalachia Llc, Shell Western E&P; Inc., Talisman Energy Usa Inc., Anadarko E&P; Co Lp, Chevron Appalachia Llc and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp are the top natural gas operators in the state.


Many other U.S. states and European countries are flirting with permitting or expanding natural gas production, while nations such as France and Bulgaria, which both have extensive reserves, have banned the controversial practice.