A study published in the journal JAMA explains how asthma flares can be caused by unconventional gas development (UNGD), such as fracking, in the proximity of residential areas. The levels of the different gasses coming from UNGDs were directly linked to how likely a person is to suffer asthma exacerbations.

The study was courtesy of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. Researchers noticed that even if the connection between asthma and the emission of gasses due to fracking and its related activities is entirely coincidental, further investigations must consider the consequences of exposure to these gasses.

A shot of a fracking well in the United States. Fracking has not only showed to have negative consequences for those who live nearby, but also to be a signifcant factor in suffering from asthma. Image Credit: Laboratory Equipment
A shot of a fracking well in the United States. Fracking has not only showed to have negative implications for those who live nearby, but also to be a significant factor in suffering from asthma. Image Credit: Laboratory Equipment

Gasses from drilling, trucks and more

Asthma is a relatively common chronic disease where the patient’s airways become constrained and produce an excess of mucus, making breathing difficult and causing regular cough episodes. Asthma can appear in different intensities, getting to the point where, in some cases, the interference it causes on a day-to-day basis or in a particular event can cause death. Almost 26 million U.S. citizens were diagnosed with asthma in 2010, a 8 percent of the whole population. Currently, it is incurable, but the symptoms can be controlled somewhat quickly.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, air pollution makes asthma more severe, particularly when the patient gets exposed to any amount of ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Stress has also been linked to asthma, as psychological stress has an effect on the respiratory pathways, especially when there are allergens and irritants in the air.

Fracking is a process where the perforation of an oil well is stimulated using 11 to 19 million liters of water, chemicals, and sand. From the point where UNGD starts up to the fracking stage, the researchers assert that least 1000 truck trips occur per oil well until fracking begins. Usually, each state’s department of environmental affairs asks for a detailed report on the emissions during oil drilling.

The process has already been proven to cause a severe impact on the air quality of where the well is being drilled. The researchers noted that, so far, there have been no conclusive studies regarding the health hazards of UNGDs, specifically its implications on respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

Finding the link between fracking and asthma

35,508 patients diagnosed with asthma from Pennsylvania and New York were studied. The research team discovered that those living in areas where UNGD is taking place were more likely to be hospitalized or being taken to emergencies due to asthma.

The researchers noted the amount of medication that each patient used, their visits to cases of emergency, and times hospitalized from 2005 to 2012. Those that had over one severe asthma episode within 72 hours were counted as a single event. Each patient attended to a control meeting at a random date over the year, taking note whether the patient was a smoker if it was diagnosed with diabetes, its race and ethnicity, weight, age, and obesity status. The temperature of the day when the control took place was also recorded.

Then, the distance from the oil wells closer to the subject was measured, along with the dimensions of the compound, how much natural gas it produced and how often. Each stage of UNGD (preparation, drilling, fracking and production) was linked to four different intensities of asthma, ranging from “very low” to “high.”

For people living next to a fracking well, there's plenty of downsides when it comes to living in a healthy environment. Image Credit: LA Water Keeper
For people living next to a fracking well, there’s plenty of downsides when it comes to residing in a healthy environment. Image Credit: LA Water Keeper

The study’s conclusion 

Besides revealing the number of UNGD wells in Pennsylvania has increased substantially from 2005, with a total of 6253 throughout the whole state, the researchers found out that those closer to an oil well ar 50 percent more likely to suffer from asthma exacerbations. Researchers also claim there’s a higher chance to suffer from asthma if the person is female, a smoker, or obese.

Although the results did not prove that fracking causes asthma complications, it is known that UNGD has harmful effects on communities, including a severe environmental impact that reflects itself in many ways, one of which is air pollution. Researchers note that this and many other studies have been consistent in highlighting UNGD as harmful for human health and the environment.

It is important to acknowledge that UNGD has not been formally associated with asthma exacerbations, but the research team insists that there is a very high possibility that they share an intrinsic relation. This research has the advantage that it used a large sample of a state’s population, so there is no room for discrepancies in that matter, The assessment of each patient’s exposure to UNGD-related emissions was creditably recorded, alongside each patient’s asthma exacerbations.

Although the relation between fracking and asthma may be apparent, the study comments that there was a lack of information regarding each participant’s occupation and that only one control visit was performed. There is also the possibility that there may be many asthma events because ambulances almost always go to the nearest hospital. This is because the study relied on Geisinger facilities to obtain the pertinent data regarding asthma exacerbations.

Since there is a high possibility that UNGD causes disease on nearby populations, there is a need to address the link between the two, and then direct the eye of public attention towards this matter. Until there are clear indications of UNGD’s effect on human health to rally a significant opposition coming from the public, oil-extracting companies will not stop their activities anytime soon.

Source: JAMA Internal Medicine