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Study: PA heart failure patients near fracking were more likely to be hospitalized

12,000 patients analyzed over 8-year period

  • Reid Frazier
A hydraulic fracturing drill rig in Bradford County.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Landov

A hydraulic fracturing drill rig in Bradford County.

Heart failure patients who live near fracking operations were more likely to be hospitalized than those who live farther away, according to a new study. 

Researchers at Drexel and Johns Hopkins studied medical records of 12,000 heart patients in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2015. 

The authors reported “significantly increased odds of hospitalization among heart failure subjects in relation to increasing” fracking activity in the area near them. Heart failure includes any condition, like a heart attack, that leads to the inability of the heart to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.  

Older patients and those with more severe heart failure “seem particularly vulnerable to adverse health impacts” from nearby fracking, the authors stated. 

The study appeared in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study was funded by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health. 

The study’s lead author, Tara McAlexander, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, said that increased noise, air pollution, and traffic from fracking could all explain the higher levels of heart patient hospitalizations found in their study. 

“We thought about all those potential exposures and how they might impact heart failure. And pretty much all of them really suggested that they would be exacerbated if you were exposed (to fracking) and you were in that vulnerable state of having heart failure in the first place.”

The authors reported they did not have data on the diet or lifestyle of the study’s subjects, but doubted whether the higher hospitalization rates they observed in heart patients living near fracked gas wells could be chalked up to those factors. 

Joan Casey, assistant professor in environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said in an email the study “adds to mounting evidence that fracking is related to adverse health outcomes.”

Casey, who worked with some of the paper’s co-authors when she was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, but was not involved in the study, said it suffered from the same limitations “of essentially all epidemiologic studies of fracking to date: we don’t know what component of fracking is responsible. Is it air pollution? Water pollution? Noise pollution? Psychosocial stress? Something else?” 

Casey also pointed out the study ends in 2015 “and so may not reflect current fracking exposures in Pennsylvania.”

Zach Rhinehart, assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said there have been calls for “high quality evidence” about fracking and health impacts for years. 

He said the study’s statistical model was strong enough to essentially rule out any other causes besides fracking for the increased hospitalizations the authors found. 

Frackingreally does seem to be associated with hospitalization for heart failure,” said Rhinehart, who was not involved in the study. “And it doesn’t seem like any other(factors) are explaining that away.” 

Rhinehart said that because fracking plays a big role in the state’s economy and energy portfolio, “it would be really important to know what about it is causing the problem.” 

“You can’t dismiss the fact that the natural gas development is a major economic driver and it’s something that’s very important to many people’s livelihoods,” Rhinehart said. “So it’s really important to find out why is this association there?”

McAlexander said the study fits with a growing list that shows increased health problems for people who live near fracking. Those problems include increased incidence of asthma, heart problems, and mental health issues, as well as health problems related to pregnancy, like birth defects, pre-term birth and low birthweight.  

“These activities — unconventional natural gas development and fracking specifically — are having negative impacts on the health of populations living nearby.”

She says because of this, she thinks fracking should be banned. 

“We know enough to know that we shouldn’t be doing this and that it’s negatively impacting populations,” McAlexander said. 

Another co-author, Brian Schwartz, professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has publicly come out against fracking

McAlexander acknowledged that burning natural gas instead of coal has resulted in widespread air quality gains in the U.S., but said “the way the natural gas industry produces natural gas in this country, it shifts a lot of those health burdens to nearby populations.”

Nate Wardle, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health said the agency is reviewing the study. The agency is funding a pair of studies to look at the relationship between fracking and health outcomes like cancer, asthma and poor birth outcomes. 

“It is the department’s goal through these studies to better understand both long term impacts and short term, acute impacts,” Wardle said, in an email. 

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, asked to comment on the study, said only that the agency would be “reviewing the (Department of Health) study,” which is slated to be completed in December 2022, and that the agency “will consider” the study and others like it when it revisits its oil and gas regulations in the future. 

A June 2020 Pennsylvania grand jury report slammed both the DEP and the health department for failing to protect the public from the health effects of fracking. 

Fracking industry groups say they are “safely and responsibly” developing the state’s natural gas resources while meeting the state’s requirements for the industry. 

Our industry is grounded in advanced scientific research, and protecting the health and safety of communities where we live and operate is our highest priority,” Marcellus Shale Coalition President Dave Spigelmyer said, in a statement. 

Rhinehart, of the University of Pittsburgh, said any negative health outcomes from fracking should be balanced against whatever positive factors the industry brings to those it benefits — like workers or landowners who have leased property for gas drilling. 

Maybe now they can afford their blood pressure medicines or their cholesterol medicine or smoking cessation aides,” Rhinehart said. It could be…that the economic benefits from this allow more people to live better lives and to be happier and healthier despite the negative effects of the pollution.”

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