Fracking Worsens Asthma Symptoms for Nearby Residents

Fracking Worsens Asthma Symptoms for Nearby Residents
In this fracking operation in Bavaria, equipment digs near residential buildings. Photo courtesy Hugelfink.

Fracking has developed a bad reputation, with viral videos showing residents setting their water on fire and some reports suggesting an increase in earthquakes near natural gas development. Now researchers have discovered another possible negative effect of this method of harvesting natural gas, with a geographic link to increased asthma symptoms.

The study comes from Brian S. Schwartz, M.D. at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and other researchers. The researchers published their results July 18th in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Hoping to discover if there was a link between fracking activity and asthma symptoms, the researchers studied residents in the state of Pennsylvania, which has plenty of fracking activity in certain areas.

For their study, the authors examined health records of 35,508 patients at the Geisinger Clinic in Pennsylvania. The records were from the years 2005 to 2012, and the patients included asthma patients who either did or did not have exacerbations, worsening symptoms of their condition. The data did not include information about occupation and did include the most recent patient address.

Researchers classed worsening asthma symptoms as mild, with 20,749 patients getting a new oral corticosteroid prescription, moderate, with 1,870 patients visiting the emergency room for their asthma, and severe, with 4,782 asthma patients hospitalized. The researchers then compared this patient data to how close they live to unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) activity, which includes preparing the well, drilling, stimulation which is also called fracking, and natural gas production. Between 2005 and 2013, companies drilled 6,253 wells in the state of Pennsylvania on 2,710 pads, stimulated 4,728 wells, and had production activity at 3,706 wells.

When the researchers compared asthma symptoms with the distance of patient homes to natural gas activity, they found a link. Those who lived closer to fracking and other activity had higher risk of mild, moderate, and severe asthma exacerbations. Those who lived the furthest away from the fracking and other activity had the lowest risk of these exacerbations. This seems to suggest that living close to the natural gas activity was worsening asthma symptoms.

Others had already associated fracking and natural gas activity with poor air quality, along with sleep disruption and air pollution associated with truck traffic to and from the wells. Residents living near fracking activity may face air, water, and soil pollution, noise, vibration, strong odors, conversion of rural areas to industrial areas, and even stress.

Health experts already know outdoor air pollution, strong odors, and stress can all increase asthma symptoms. The authors of the current study point out that with almost 26 million people in the United States alone suffering from chronic asthma, and increasing use of fracking to harvest natural gas for energy, this is a public health concern. Quality of life and the cost of healthcare can both be affected by an increase in asthma symptoms, so the authors call for more studies into which effects of natural gas development trigger the asthma symptoms and how the asthma patients can be protected. The current study does not prove a link between fracking and asthma exacerbation, but it provides incentive to take a closer look.

Fracking, or slick water hydraulic fracturing, is a method companies use to extract natural gas from the ground. Natural gas can be trapped in rocks far beneath the Earth’s surface, so companies will pump water, sand, and chemicals down to crack the rock and release the trapped natural gas. They can then harvest this natural gas for energy. Although the process helps access hard-to-reach energy deposits, it has become controversial as many worry about its environmental impacts. Fracking could potentially contaminate groundwater, use up fresh water that may be needed for other uses, release greenhouse gasses and air pollution, and possibly even trigger earthquakes. Governments must try to balance the interests of industry and of fulfilling the country’s energy needs with keeping residents safe and healthy.

When a patient suffers from asthma, their airways can narrow and swell, causing breathing difficulties, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and even lack of sleep. Symptoms can range from minor to life-threatening, and asthma symptoms can worsen from stress, exercise, allergies, a cold or flu, and environmental factors such as air pollution.

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