Elderly people living near or downwind from unconventional oil and gas well development (UOGD) have a higher risk of early death, a new study found. The study from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health was recently published in the journal Nature Energy. Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and Harvard, the study concluded that airborne contaminants emitted during the construction and fracking process “represent a key exposure pathway” that leads to earlier mortality of those over 65 than for elderly people who don’t live near well sites. Unconventional gas well development involves the construction of a large well pad and directional drilling of long lateral lines combined with hydraulic fracturing of the shale layers using water and chemicals injected at high pressures. There are more than 100,000 unconventional wells in the U.S. and roughly 17.6 million residents live within one kilometer of an active well. “The closer to UOGD wells people lived, the greater their risk of premature mortality,” a press release states. Those who lived closest had a 2.5 percent higher mortality risk than those who didn’t live close to wells. The researchers studied a cohort of more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries, those 65 and older, living in all major U.S. fracking regions from 2001 to 2015. They also gathered data from more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells and used two different statistical approaches to calculate what the exposure to pollutants would be from living close to well operations, downwind, or both, while adjusting for socioeconomic, environmental, and demographic factors. The study noted that it could not be determined what aspect of the development process or what pollutants were specifically to blame because detailed exposure data on air pollutants other than particulate matter was unavailable. “Considering the increased rate and scale of UOGC development, it is critical to understand the potential health risks that are associated with this industry,” the study states. While other studies have found correlations between living near fracking sites and health problems such as asthma, respiratory problems, and low birth weight, this is the first to link mortality to well development air pollution exposures. A state-funded study of the health effects of fracking and whether it is related to rare childhood cancers that have been seen in Southwestern Pennsylvania is now underway by the University Of Pittsburgh Graduate School Of Public Health.
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