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Unconventional Natural Gas Developments Associated with Higher Levels of Pediatric Asthma Cases

Pediatric asthma is a common medical condition that is often related to air quality. Past studies have shown that an increase in unconventional natural gas developments such as hydraulic fracturing can lead to a paralleled increase in air pollutants in the areas of such developments, and these pollutants can potentially affect the respiratory health of those living nearby.

Thus, researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences utilized data from the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale and Pennsylvania Department of Health from 2003 to 2014 to see if the increase in unconventional natural gas developments has led to an increase in pediatric (ages 18 and under) asthma-related hospital visits.

Consideration of zip code was included in order to distinguish rural and urban areas, as urban areas are known to have higher levels of air pollutants even prior to the introduction of unconventional natural gas developments. Urban areas were then excluded from this study. A total of 29 Pennsylvania counties were included in the study, covering 5649 unconventional natural gas development wells and 15,837 pediatric asthma-related hospitalizations.

The researchers found that the introduction of unconventional natural gas developments did indeed result in a worsening of the air quality and respiratory health in the surrounding areas, as indicated by an uptick in asthma-related hospitalizations regardless of age-group by an odds ratio of 1.73. This was true despite controls for the increase in vehicular traffic that would be associated with unconventional natural gas developments, and it was sustained years after the developments had been established. Specific air pollutants included 2,2,4-trimethylpentane, formaldehyde, nitrous oxide, VOCs, and x-hexane. In children aged 2-6, there was also exposure to carbon monoxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, toluene, and xylenes.

These findings indicate that further research and development should focus on ways to mitigate the negative health effects due to air quality that can be resulting from unconventional natural gas developments that are already in place. For example, air purifiers should be provided to families with young children as well as schools to filter out pollutants. Actions should be taken to decrease air pollution resulting from these developments. Additionally, approval of future developments should take into consideration the potentially harmful effects on the health of children in that area and can include zoning laws prohibiting schools and recreational facilities close to unconventional natural gas developments.

Contributed by Tim Yeung

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