Elderly people who live close or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), such as fracking, are at greater risk of premature death than those who don’t live near UOGD, according to a new study.
The new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in Nature Energy, suggests that airborne contaminants emitted by UOGD and transported downwind are contributing to increased mortality.
According to the study, UOGD has expanded rapidly over the past decade. As of 2015, according to the study, more than 100,000 UOGD land-based wells were drilled using directional drilling combined with fracking. Roughly 17.6 million U.S. residents currently live within one kilometer of at least one active well.
Compared with conventional oil and gas drilling, UOGD generally involves longer construction periods and larger well pads (the area occupied by equipment or facilities) and requires larger volumes of water, proppants (sand or other materials used to keep hydraulic fractures open), and chemicals during the fracking process.
The researchers studied a cohort of more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries, aged 65 and older, living in all major U.S. UOGD exploration regions from 2001 to 2015. They also gathered data from the records of more than 2.5 million oil and gas wells.
The researchers used two different statistical approaches to calculate what the exposure to pollutants would be from living close to UOGD operations, downwind of them, or both, while adjusting for socioeconomic, environmental, and demographic factors for each Medicare beneficiary’s ZIP code and year in the cohort.
The study revealed that the closer people lived to UOGD wells, the higher their risk of premature death. Those who lived closest to wells had a statistically significant elevated mortality risk of 2.5 percent, compared with those who didn’t live close to wells. The study also found that people who lived near UOGD wells as well as downwind of them were at higher risk of premature death than those living upwind when both groups were compared with people who were unexposed.