Well-Being Longevity

Elderly people living near fracking sites at higher risk of early death, study says

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A hydraulic fracking plant in West Virginia. iStock

Story at a glance

  • Researchers from Harvard studied and calculated mortality rates for about 15 million Medicare beneficiaries.
  • The study analyzed how close Medicare beneficiaries lived near any major U.S. unconventional oil and gas development region (UOGD).
  • Those who lived the closest to UOGD wells had a 2.5 percent higher mortality risk compared to those who didn’t.

Not much is known about how exposure to oil and gas developments relate to mortality risks, but a new massive study tried to answer that question and found that elderly people living near certain fracking sites are at a higher risk of early death. 

Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study that analyzed a cohort of about 15 million Medicare beneficiaries in all major U.S. unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) regions from 2001 to 2015. 

Data from records of more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells was collected along with each Medicare beneficiary’s ZIP code of residence and year in the cohort, and that allowed researchers to calculate an exposure rate. 

Researchers found that there was evidence of a statistically significant higher mortality risk associated with people living in proximity to and downwind of unconventional oil and gas wells.  

Those who lived the closest to wells had a 2.5 percent higher mortality risk compared to those who didn’t live close to wells. The study also found that people who live downwind of UOGD wells were also at a higher risk of premature death versus those living upwind. 


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“Although UOGD is a major industrial activity in the U.S., very little is known about its public health impacts. Our study is the first to link mortality to UOGD-related air pollutant exposures,” said Petros Koutrakis, professor of environmental sciences and senior author of the study, in a statement. 

UOGD is different than traditional drilling, as it uses a relatively new process of hydraulic fracturing that requires injecting water, sand and other chemicals under high pressure into a bedrock formation through a well. The process is used to increase oil or gas flow to a well from gas-bearing rock formations. 

The process is considered more invasive as it involves longer construction periods and larger well pads, along with larger volumes of water, sand and other materials to keep hydraulic fractures open. All that leads to the use of more chemicals during the fracking process. 

ECONorthwest, a consulting firm specializing in economics and planning, conducted a report for the state of Pennsylvania in 2019 and found fracking primarily affected vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and low-income populations. The group said that fracking can impact human health by reducing air quality, contaminating ground water while also creating noise pollution and safety issues. 

Even more worrisome, ECONorthwest also found health effects linked to fracking including low birth weight, preterm births, infertility, asthma, respiratory diseases, cancer, liver damage, cardiovascular diseases, migraines, anxiety and more.  

Oil and gas drilling and fracking has rapidly expanded over the past decade, with Harvard researchers finding that as of 2015, more than 100,000 UOGD land-based wells were drilled using directional drilling combined with fracking. That’s occurred as roughly 17.6 million U.S. residents currently live less than a mile from at least one active well.  

“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and lead author of the study. 


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