Yale study shows potential link between health ailments, gas wells

September 11, 2014
Courtesy Environmental Health Perspectives

Skin conditions and upper respiratory problems were more than twice as common among Washington County residents living closest to natural gas wells, according to a Yale University study released this week.

Researchers surveyed 492 residents in 180 randomly selected households with well water or springs in areas with drilling activity. According to the published report, it was quite possibly “the largest study to date of the association of reported symptoms and natural gas drilling activities.”

While the study showed a potential correlation between the proximity to well sites and symptoms of skin and upper respiratory ailments, it revealed no such link to an increase in cardiac, neurological or gastrointestinal symptoms.

Researchers and members of Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project conducted a health survey in summer 2012 of residents in 38 rural townships in Washington County. At the time, there were 624 active natural gas wells in the county, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The health symptoms reported by residents living within 1 kilometer of a gas well were compared to symptoms reported by residents living 2 or more kilometers from a well. Researchers found a higher number of reported symptoms from residents living closer to wells, even after researchers adjusted for factors such as age, gender, smokers in the household, job type and awareness of environmental risk.

Upper respiratory problems were reported in 39 percent of households within 1 kilometer of a well, compared to 18 percent of households located 2 or more kilometers away. Similarly, 13 percent of residents within 1 kilometer reported skin conditions, compared to three percent of residents living farther from wells.

However, researchers said there is no definitive correlation between the health symptoms and industry operations, such as the flaring of gas wells, hydraulic fracturing and truck transportation associated with carrying water and sand. But according to the report, potential industry factors may include water contamination from leaks and spills, or airborne components such as nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.

“We really don’t know where the exposures are coming from, and what you can blame for the exposures,” Yale researcher Dr. Meredith H. Stowe said, adding that further research is needed.

Researchers also lamented the lack of “peer-reviewed evidence regarding the public health risks of natural gas drilling activities including a lack of systematic surveys of human health effects,” according to the report.

Stowe said the difficulty in obtaining funding is a major limitation when conducting these types of studies.

“It costs a lot of money. It’s very expensive, and it’s hard to get funding for anything like this,” she said. “We basically started the study from a couple of students who got some funding, then we were able to add some other funding from private (sources). It’s fortunate we were able to do what we did.”

The Yale study was primarily funded by grants from The Heinz Endowments, the Schmidt Family Foundation and the Claneil Foundation. Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project assisted with the community survey.

Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, lambasted EHP as a biased group involved in anti-fracking political ads funded by the North Carolina Environmental Partnership.

“This study, done in partnership with a local activist group, was designed to put selective and unproven data behind a pre-determined and biased narrative,” Windle said in an email, adding that there were no instances of well water contamination in Washington County when the survey was conducted in summer 2012.

“To be absolutely clear, the health and safety of our employees and the communities where we operate is our industry’s foremost priority,” he said, “and we remain deeply committed to responsibly developing these clean-burning resources.”

Many researchers have recently been drawn to Pennsylvania – especially Washington County – because of the high level of natural gas drilling activity. John Hopkins researchers are using health data from the Geisinger Center for Health Research to analyze respiratory and reproductive outcomes in Pennsylvania in relation to shale development.

“Pennsylvania is really a very, very important state to study – one of the most rapid of the states to develop this industry,” said Brian Schwartz, head researcher for the ongoing John Hopkins study. “What’s more important about Pennsylvania is that lots of people live in the counties where this (activity) is going on.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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