Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UW Study Raises Questions About Possible Health Hazards Of 'Fracking'

WCN 24/7
UW and Yale researchers investigated whether people living near fracking operations, like this one in Pennsylvania, reported more health problems.

Residents of a rural Pennsylvania county who live near natural gas wells reported more health problemsthan their neighbors who live farther away. That and other findings by a University of Washington researcher raise questions about the health effects of the practice known as fracking.

Researchers went door to door in tiny Washington County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, where gas is extracted by underground hydraulic fracturing. They didn’t tell residents they were there investigating fracking, calling it simply a general environmental health survey. They asked randomly selected households representing almost 500 people about a number of different of symptoms.

After conducting the survey, the research team figured out how close each house was to the nearest gas well. Peter Rabinowitz of the UW School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Department, first author on the team’s study, said living just one kilometer nearer to or farther from a gas well made a huge difference.

“The average number of symptoms per person in households less than one kilometer from a well was approximately twice the number compared to people living in households that were more than two kilometers away,” Rabinowitz said.

Specifically, people near gas wells were more likely to report skin and upper respiratory symptoms, like coughing and nosebleeds. Air pollution and groundwater contamination would be possible culprits. Other categories of symptoms, such as gastrointestinal and neurological, showed no significant difference among households by distance from gas wells.

The results are based on what people reported, and weren’t confirmed by a blood test or clinical examination, making it difficult to draw conclusions about whether fracking truly presents health hazards. But Rabinowitz said it is more than enough to show we know too little, and need to learn more.

“I'm surprised, given the scope of natural gas exploration that’s happening, that there is not more ongoing research like this,” he said.

Rabinowitz advocated for more and more systematic research to investigate the findings. The results are published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.