Large New Study: Exposure to Fracking Doubles Risk of Debilitating Health Effects

By Paul Rauber

August 25, 2016

Fracking rig

Photo by Istock/bizoo_n

In an important study published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that Pennsylvania residents who lived the closest to natural gas wells using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, were twice as likely to suffer from a combination of migraines, sinus problems, and chronic fatigue as those living elsewhere. Another study, appearing today in the journal Endocrinology, found a link between exposure to fracking chemicals and reproductive abnormalities in female mice. Together, the studies will help fracking opponents (like the Sierra Club) make a strong case for banning the practice, which now accounts for 40 percent of natural gas production in the United States. 

Despite the widespread use of fracking—the injection of steam and chemicals into underground shale formations to loosen pockets of oil and natural gas, allowing them to be pumped to the surface—there have only been two epidemiological studies. Until now. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg study (by Aaron W. Tustin; Annemarie G. Hirsch; Sara G. Rasmussen; Joan A. Casey; Karen Bandeen-Roche, and Brian S. Schwartz) collected health data from 7,785 adults in north and central Pennsylvania—some from areas of very active fracking, others not. Specifically—and without mentioning anything about fracking—the researchers zeroed in on patients with nasal and sinus problems, migraines, and/or high levels of fatigue, all previously linked to toxic chemicals, irritation, odors, or stress. They then selected a group of participants who did not have these conditions, and used publicly available data on Pennsylvania’s 8,800 fracked wells to determine their degree of exposure to the industry. 

The result: Those closest to fracking operations had “significantly increased odds” of a combination of the targeted health effects, suggesting “a threshold in the relationship between [fracking] and symptoms.” The researchers point out that the mechanism by which fracking could cause these symptoms has already been established: “Exposure to allergens, toxicants, and secondhand smoke may trigger nasal and sinus symptoms . . . migraines can be triggered by noise, odors, and stress . . . Similarly, fatigue has multiple risk factors including sleep deprivation, psychosocial stressors . . . and exposure to low levels of environmental chemicals.” 

“These three health conditions can have debilitating effects on people’s lives,” says Aaron W. Tustin, the study’s first author. “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.”          

Today’s other big study focused on the effects from the chemicals used in fracking on key hormones. It is the first study to link exposure to these chemicals to reproductive and developmental problems in female mice, including “increased body weights, altered uterine and ovary weights, increased heart weights and collagen deposition . . . and other adverse health effects.” Lead author Susan C. Nagel of the University of Missouri in Columbia notes that her team has previously found that “exposure to the same chemicals was tied to reduced sperm counts in male mice. Our studies suggest adverse developmental and reproductive health outcomes might be expected in humans and animals exposed to chemicals in regions with oil and gas activity.” 

The studies come at a time when states are sharply divided in their approaches to the “unconventional” natural gas industry. Vermont has banned fracking, as has New York, while California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has resisted calls to do so. With today’s strong studies showing evidence of negative health effects, though, the dirty practice becomes much harder to justify.