The Evidence Of Fracking’s Health Effects Keeps Mounting

Fracking has already been linked with pollution and earthquakes.

A worker during a hydraulic fracturing process on the Marcellus Shale in Claysville, Pa. CREDIT: AP/KEITH SRAKOCIC
A worker during a hydraulic fracturing process on the Marcellus Shale in Claysville, Pa. CREDIT: AP/KEITH SRAKOCIC

Hydraulic fracturing has over the past few years been associated with ground water pollution, spills, and earthquakes in various states. Now, a study led by John Hopkins University researchers found that fracking in Pennsylvania may be associated with migraines, fatigue, and sinusitis.

The study, published Thursday, adds to a growing body of scientific work that on regular basis links the controversial extraction process with adverse effects on the environment and people. It also stands out as previous studies on the health effects of fracking have suffered from small sample sizes, and difficulties on how to assess exposure. To date, only two epidemiological studies, each covering less than 500 participants, have been published, according to the study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers chose to evaluate migraines, fatigue, and sinus symptoms due to their high prevalence, large economic costs, and possible link to environmental risk factors like chemical toxicity, or odors. Fracking can produce air pollution, odors, noise, bright lights, and other factors known to be linked to migraines and respiratory problems. For instance, odors can trigger migraines in some people.

To reach their conclusions researchers evaluated the responses of nearly 8,000 people on the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers about 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. Participants were reached via questionnaires through 2014. The questionnaires did not mention fracking, a process where drillers inject massive amounts of chemicals, sand, and water into wells to break shale rock and extract oil or gas.

Researchers then used residential addresses and data on Pennsylvania’s fracked wells from state agencies and other sources, to rank participants depending on how close they lived to fracking operations. According to the report, respondents living closer to wells were 49 percent more likely to report sinusitis and migraines, 88 percent more likely to report sinusitis and fatigue, and 84 percent to report all three conditions.

“We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,” Brian S. Schwartz, the study’s senior author and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a press release. “We need to find a way to better understand the correlation and, hopefully, do something to protect the health of these people.”

The study does disclose a number of potential biases. For instance, it didn’t assess the time relationship between exposures and outcomes, or the onset dates of the symptoms. The study also didn’t measure participants’ exposure to ambient air pollution, which along with industry- related pollution, may provoke nasal and sinus symptoms.

Still, environmentalists welcomed the study.

“This is the third study released by Hopkins in the past year that connects proximity to fracking sites with adverse health outcomes,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement. “ While the industry will no doubt continue to refute the expanding science about the dangers of fracking, we can’t afford to ignore it.”

Indeed, last fall John Hopkins researchers found a link between fracking and premature births and high-risk pregnancies, and in July scientists found links between fracking and asthma.

For their part, critics said the study lacked baseline data, which could show if people suffered the reported ailments prior to the fracking boom. Some have also noted that Schwartz, the lead author, is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, a think tank that promotes climate change action and sustainability.

“With this research team’s track record of biased studies and activism considered — along with the sheer absurdity of blaming such common ailments on fracking — it comes to no surprise that their conclusions are (yet again) highly suspect,” said Seth Whitehead, Illinois field directory at Energy In Depth, a think tank launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, an oil industry trade group highly invested in fracking.

Last month, former Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA), who ran the state during the fracking boom that began in the mid-2000s, said Pennsylvania’s fracking rules favored economics over environmental safety during much of his time in office. Pennsylvania is located on top of the Marcellus Shale, the top-producing shale gas basin in the United States.

“I made a mistake in the rush to get the economic part of fracking delivered to Pennsylvania,” said Rendell during an event at the Democratic National Convention. “We didn’t regulate well construction and [disposal] of frackwater as well as we should.”

This month he clarified his comments saying he didn’t “apologize at all” and claimed all major problems were eliminated in 2010. “I’m a strong advocate of continuing to frack,” Rendell said to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this month.

Pennsylvania has more than 7,500 fracked wells and more than 4,000 related violations, according to State Impact data.