Fracking linked to more hospitalizations in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region

gas-drilling site
CC BY 2.0 Nicholas A. Tonelli. Marcellus shale gas-drilling site in Pennsylvania.

A new study from some of the nation’s top public health researchers finds a connection between increased hospitalizations and hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of extracting oil and natural gas that has spread rapidly in the United States over the past decade. Although the technology has been credited with decreasing the nation's dependance on imported fuel, the process raises some serious concerns about water and air pollution.

Researchers from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Penn's Perelman School of Medicine and the Center for Environmental Health set out to see if the increase in fracking along Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation has had any effect on the health of nearby communities. Researchers analyzed the number of hospitalizations and the number of fracking wells for different zip codes in Bradford, Susquehanna and Wayne County.

The study analyzed data from 2007 to 2011. During that time, there was a substantial increase in the number of fracking wells in Bradford and Susquehanna. However, Wayne has no fracking because the area is so close to the Delaware River watershed.

The researchers found that hospitalizations for heart problems, neurological illnesses and other health conditions were higher in areas with a greater density of fracking wells. The authors note that finding a significant association over this short time is remarkable. "At this point, we suspect that residents are exposed to many toxicants, noise, and social stressors due to hydraulic fracturing near their homes and this may add to the increased number of hospitalizations,” said senior author Reynold Panettieri, Jr., MD in a statement. “This study represents one of the most comprehensive to date to link health effects with hydraulic fracturing."

However, this type of study can’t tell us exactly what factor is causing more health problems—the correlation doesn’t prove causation. However, the researchers say it does suggest that more study of the health risks of fracking is merited, and that the economic benefits of fracking should be weighed against healthcare costs.

These findings were published this week in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

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