For the First Time, a Harvard Study Links Air Pollution From Fracking to Early Deaths Among Nearby Residents

The researchers studied more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in all major fracking regions and gathered data from more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells.

A soybean field lies in front of a natural gas drilling rig Sept. 8, 2012 in Fairfield Township, Pennsylvania. Credit: Getty Images

A soybean field lies in front of a natural gas drilling rig Sept. 8, 2012 in Fairfield Township, Pennsylvania. Credit: Getty Images

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Western Pennsylvania residents and doctors have been going public for several years with their concerns that fracking for fossil gas has sickened people and may be causing rare cancers in children. 

Today, a new study out of Harvard links fracking with early deaths of senior citizens.

Published in the peer reviewed scientific journal Nature Energy, the team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health blames a mix of airborne contaminants associated with what is known as unconventional oil and gas development. That is when companies use horizontal drilling and liquids under pressure to fracture underground rock to release the fossil fuels through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The closer people 65 and older lived to wells, the greater their risk of premature mortality, the study found. Those senior citizens who lived closest to wells had an early death risk 2.5 percent higher than people who did not live close to the wells, the researchers found. 

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The study also found that seniors who lived downwind of wells were at a similar higher risk of premature death than those living upwind, when compared with people who were unexposed. In their paper, researchers did not estimate the total number of premature deaths nor the length of time lives were shortened.

Still, the authors said it’s the first study to link mortality among those 65 and older with air pollution from fracking wells.

“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating (unconventional oil and gas development) near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral fellow in the school’s Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study. 

The researchers wrote that a variety of activities can cause air pollution around oil and gas wells resulting in increased exposure to volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and naturally occurring radiation. 

Those activities can include pad construction, well drilling, hydraulic fracturing and fossil fuel production. Diesel trucks and equipment used to build the drilling pads and to force the fracking fluids deep into the ground also emit pollutants. Pollutants can be released directly from wellheads and from the burning of unwanted fossil fuels, a process known as flaring.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the industry’s release of volatile organic compounds is a major contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog, which is linked to aggravated asthma, increased emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and premature death. The EPA has proposed what it describes as expanded and strengthened emissions reduction requirements for new, modified or reconstructed oil and natural gas sources.

Fracking and Premature Death Among Senior Citizens

The study is certain to further animate political debates over the health effects of a controversial method of fossil fuel extraction at a time when fossil fuels are under increasing scrutiny because they are also blamed for contributing to the climate crisis

While Li acknowledged socioeconomic benefits for people living in fracking areas, he said “what we are trying to do is provide good evidence for the policy makers. To make good policy, you need to know both sides, the risks and the benefits.”

“We are not policymakers,” he added. 

The study’s conclusions are no surprise to Dr. Edward C. Ketyer, a pediatrician from Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, who has been sounding the alarm about health effects from a fracking boom that transformed the economy and character of southwest Pennsylvania over the last 15 years.

“Living in Southwest Pennsylvania in the middle of the Marcellus Shale region, we have all read the studies on the known health impacts from living near oil and gas operations,” said Ketyer, president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania. “There have been good studies that have been replicated” on poor birth outcomes, premature births, low birth weights and complications with pregnancies, he said, and also “good data” that shows people living near fracking operations have higher risk of hospitalizations, migraine headaches and upper respiratory tract infections.

“And we are still very concerned about the issue of a spike in rare childhood cancers,” he said, referring to Ewing sarcoma, which is still under investigation in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh.

“There have been plenty of public health studies, at least 10 or 20 in the scientific literature, that have looked at various impacts on public health” from fracking, said Gunnar W. Schade, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University whose research focus includes hydrocarbons emitted by the oil and gas industry in Texas and elsewhere. 

While he said he is not familiar with the details of the Harvard study, the results appear to be consistent with those of others that have found various health consequences related to proximity to points of exposure, like wells. The trouble, however, is that there is not enough exposure data to make stronger connections, he said, though he said he is part of a new research effort that is attempting to do that.

Without knowing more about what pollutants people were exposed to and at what levels, research conclusions remain based on indirect or proxy measurement, giving industry supporters “plausible deniability” of the problem.

Mike Sommers, the chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group, has made the case that overall air quality is better in the United States now because the national gas boom has replaced a lot of coal in power generation.

And last fall, API Vice President Kevin O’Scannlain testified during an EPA hearing that the institute supported new air pollution regulations on oil and gas production but urged the agency “to carefully consider the availability and cost of equipment, labor and other required resources needed to comply with the proposed standards.”

The Harvard scientists acknowledged they were unable to determine which air pollutant or pollutants may explain the premature deaths. 

“There are almost no (air pollution) monitoring stations near the fracking wells,” Li said. “Almost all the monitoring stations are in urban areas.”

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But the authors wrote that fracking has expanded rapidly and that as of 2015, there were already more than 100,000 land-based wells drilled using directional drilling combined with fracking. Compared with conventional oil and gas drilling, the new methods involve longer construction periods and larger well pads, and require larger volumes of water and chemicals.

Though called unconventional, the drilling practice has become the most common in the United States.

Roughly 17.6 million residents live within about a half mile of at least one active well, according to the study. For their paper, the researchers studied a cohort of more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries, people ages 65 and older, living in all major U.S. fracking regions, from 2001 to 2015. They also gathered data from the records of more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells. They used two different statistical methods to calculate people’s exposures, while adjusting the findings for socioeconomic, environmental and demographic factors.

“There is an urgent need to understand the causal link between living near or downwind of (unconventional oil and gas development) and adverse health effects,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard professor of biostatistics and one of ten co-authors of the study.

Dominici was the senior author last year on a major study that quantified the degree to which increases in fine particle pollution during wildfires contributed to excess Covid-19 cases and deaths in the U.S.