Is there a relationship between proximity to natural gas wells and health?

by Alex Frumkin

There has been little research about the public health impacts of living near unconventional natural gas extraction activities. Rabinowitz et al. a (2015) aimed to assess a possible relationship by generating a health symptom survey of 492 people in households with ground-fed wells in an area of active natural gas drilling. The survey looked at the household’s proximity to gas wells and then the prevalence and frequency of reported dermal, respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and neurological symptoms. The study found that individuals who lived within 1 km of a gas well were twice as likely to experience upper respiratory systems than individuals in households more than 1 km away. No relationship found between well proximity and any of the other possible health conditions that this survey covered.

The increase in unconventional methods of natural gas extraction has lead to concern over the possible adverse public health effects related to this drilling. There are currently very few peer-reviewed studies of the health effects that could be related to the process of natural gas extraction, potential water exposures, and potential air exposures that occur because of hydraulic fracturing. There is concern that these different exposures could happen through contaminants in the water or in the air, and this report was an analysis of a cross-sectional, random-sample survey of the health of residents who had ground-fed water wells near natural gas extraction activities.

The study focused on Washington County, Pennsylvania near where natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale is occurring. This area was classified as active because there were 624 active natural gas wells in this county, and 95% of them were horizontally drilled. The health assessment was created with questions that were drawn from publicly available surveys and on reported health symptoms. The randomly selected households were visited to ensure that they did have a ground-fed water well and that the homes were occupied. The report classified each household surveyed by the household’s distance from a gas well: <1 km, 1-2 km, >2 km.

The results from this study showed that sixty-six percent of these households used their ground-fed water for drinking water and 84% used it for other activities such as bathing. The report showed that the average number of reported symptoms per person in households less than 1 km from a gas well was significantly greater than for those living more than 2 km away from gas wells. Individuals in households less than 1 km from natural gas wells were more likely to have skin conditions and upper respiratory symptoms in the past year. The other symptoms that were studied did not show a significant relationship between the proximity to gas well and the frequency of the health symptom. Although a significant relationship was not found between all of the health concerns and proximity to a gas well, this study affirms the need for further research into the health effects of natural gas extraction activities.

Rabinowitz PM, Slizovskiy IB, Lamers V, et al 2015. Proximity to Natural Gas Wells and Reported Health Status: Results of a Household Survey in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Environmental Health Perspectives.;123,21-26. doi:10.1289/ehp.1307732.

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