As we have reported many times over the years, there is a growing body of scientific research linking fracking to serious adverse health outcomes* (scroll down to see a list of some of those scientific findings**). The hydraulic fracking process involves the use of fracturing fluid products—water combined with a cocktail of toxic chemicals—to extract gas and oil from shale rock deep beneath the earth’s surface. A number of toxic chemicals commonly used in the fracking process have been linked in scientific research to chronic toxicity, teratogenicity, developmental neurotoxicity and carcinogenicity***. Now, scientists have uncovered a link between living near fracking activity and an increased risk for heart attacks.
New research compared the health impacts of fracking on either side of the New York and Pennsylvania border and found that people who live in areas with a high concentration of fracking wells are at higher risk for heart attacks.
The Marcellus Formation straddles the New York State and Pennsylvania border, a region that shares similar geography and population demographics. However, on one side of the state line unconventional natural gas development — or fracking — is banned, while on the other side it represents a multi-billion dollar industry. New research takes advantage of this ‘natural experiment’ to examine the health impacts of fracking and found that people who live in areas with a high concentration of wells are at higher risk for heart attacks.
Instead of the typical single source of industrial air pollution, such as a factory or power plant, fracking entails multiple well sites spread across a large, and often rural, geographic area. In 2014, there were more than 8,000 fracking well sites in Pennsylvania. Some areas of the state have a dense population of fracking wells — three Pennsylvania counties have more than 1,000 sites. Contrast that with New York State, which has essentially banned the process of hydraulic fracking since 2010.
Exposure to air pollution is recognized as a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Other research has shown that the intensity of oil and gas development and production is positively associated with diminished vascular function, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers associated with stress and short-term air pollution exposure. Light and noise pollution from the continuous operation of the wells are also associated with increasing stress, which is another contributor to cardiovascular disease.
The research team decided to measure the impact of fracking on cardiovascular health by studying heart attack hospitalization and death rates in 47 counties on either side of the New York and Pennsylvania state line. Using data from 2005 to 2014, they observed that heart attack rates were 1.4 to 2.8 percent higher in Pennsylvania, depending upon the age group and level of fracking activity in a given county.
The associations between fracking and heart attack hospitalization and death were most consistent among men aged 45-54, a group most likely to be in the unconventional gas industry workforce and probably the most exposed to fracking-related air pollutants and stressors. Heart attack deaths also increase in this age group by 5.4 percent or more in counties with high concentrations of well sites. Hospitalization and mortality rates also jumped significantly in women over the age of 65.
Fracking is more concentrated in rural communities, which the authors speculate may further compromise cardiovascular heath due to the trend of rural hospital closures. People who suffer from cardiovascular disease in these areas may be at increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including death, due to less access to care. The authors suggest that more should be done to raise awareness about fracking-related risks for cardiovascular disease and physicians should keep a closer eye on high risk patients who reside in areas with fracking activity. They also contend that the study should inform policymakers about the tradeoffs between public health and the economic activity generated by the industry.
*The potential for public health problems due to exposure to these toxic chemicals is not just hypothetical; studies have detected toxic chemicals present in the ground water and drinking water wells in areas where fuel extraction via hydraulic fracking has occurred. By 2014, investigations of water contamination in fracking areas had uncovered more than 1,000 cases across seven states where toxic chemicals had leached into surface and ground water. Further, a House of Representatives report on the chemicals used in the fracking process revealed that U.S. hydraulic fracking companies inject more than 10 million gallons of fluid that contain hundreds of chemicals considered to be either possible human carcinogens or known human carcinogens.
**Scientific research linking fracking to adverse health outcomes:
***While the full lists of chemicals used in fracking products are considered proprietary and therefore are unknown, some of the most commonly used chemicals that we do know about include: Methanol (vapors can trigger headaches, fatigue and eye damage and high doses can be fatal); Ethylene Glycol (toxic to humans; derivatives and metabolites are teratogenic; ingestion can lead to poisoning and adverse effects of the central nervous system, metabolic acidosis, and kidney damage/failure); BTEX compounds (short-term exposure to these compounds can trigger headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, weakness, nausea and vomiting), additionally, long-term exposure and perinatal/neonatal exposure can be serious: Benzene (a known carcinogen), Toluene (among the chemicals linked with developmental neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disabilities including loss of IQ points, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and autism among other types of cognitive damage, and central nervous system damage in adults), and Ethylbenzene and Xylene (both of which have also been shown to have harmful effects on the central nervous system); Naphthalene (inhalation can cause respiratory problems, nausea, and vomiting; additionally, Naphthalene is among the toxic chemicals that has been detected in human umbilical cord blood; this common PCB contaminant can lead to kidney and liver damage); Lead (among the chemicals linked with developmental neurotoxicity and neurodevelopmental disabilities including loss of IQ points, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and autism and other cognitive damage in children; also linked with high blood pressure and nerve disorders in adults); Diesel Fuel (contains toxic compounds such as BTEX and can cause skin disorders; long-term exposure can lead to severe skin damage and cancer); and then there are Sulfuric Acid, Crystalline Silica, and Formaldehyde (all are potentially harmful if inhaled and can lead to lung damage; all are carcinogenic).
Journal Reference: Alina Denham, Mary D. Willis, Daniel P. Croft, Linxi Liu, Elaine L. Hill. Acute myocardial infarction associated with unconventional natural gas development: A natural experiment. Environmental Research, 2021; 195: 110872 DOI: 10.1016/j.envres.2021.110872