Communities close to fracking sites are at increased risk of premature death

Unconventional oil and gas development facilities (UOGD) have a major impact on the health of people those living nearby.

A large scale study by Harvard  T.H. Chan School of Public Health has concluded that airborne contaminants emitted during directional (non-vertical) drilling and hydraulic fracturing processes can lead to higher mortality rates as they travel downwind. 

These results are particularly worrying as this approach to oil and gas extraction, commonly known as fracking, has become far more commonplace in the last ten years. As per the research, by 2015 there were more than 100,000 UOGD facilities on US soil, with around 17.6m people living within one kilometre of one or more active wells. 

man in black leather jacket holding green banner

The analysis involved 15m Medicare users – aged 65 and over – in every major UOGD exploration region of the US between 2001 and 2015. Records from over 2.5m oil and gas wells were also included, with researchers cross-referencing zip codes with years spent living in the area.

Overall, it was concluded that the closer people are to UOGD wells the greater their risk of early death. This was most significantly increased – by 2.5% – among those living closest to the sites, compared to individuals whose homes are not nearby. Wind direction also had a role to play, with those living close and downwind particularly susceptible. 

‘Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,’ said Longxiang Li, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study.

A previous study, conducted by Oregon State University and the University of Cincinnati in 2015, suggested fracking sites were having a detrimental impact on human health. 

Image credit: Paul-Alain Hunt


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