Fracking wells increase rate of asthma attacks in nearby residents, study finds

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Asthma inhaler. Photo by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

An asthma patient living near an unconventional natural gas development well in Pennsylvania was 1.5 times more likely to have a severe asthma attack, according to a new study. Photo by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Natural gas wells created by fracking in Pennsylvania may elevate the number of asthma attacks for nearby asthma patients, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The investigation found a patient living near one of these sites — known as unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) wells — was 1.5 times more likely to have a severe asthma attack and four times as likely to have a moderate attack. While the study doesn’t prove natural gas pollution caused the asthma attacks, it is likely to stir the debate over the health effects of fracking.

“We are concerned with the growing number of studies that have observed health effects associated with this industry,” Dr. Brian Schwartz, senior author and environmental health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a statement. “We believe it is time to take a more cautious approach to well development with an eye on environmental and public health impacts.”

Schwartz and his colleagues came to this conclusion by tracking 35,508 asthma patients in the Geisinger Health System, which serves northeastern and central Pennsylvania. The team collected data on how often these patients had mild, moderate and severe asthma attacks from 2005 to 2012. The study stated more than 6,200 wells were drilled during this timeframe. The researchers then cross-referenced how far these patients lived from UNGD wells.

Along with finding that a well’s proximity correlates with asthma attack, the study said the most hazardous stage was the production stage. UNGD wells are made in four stages: pad preparation, drilling, stimulation (hydraulic fracturing/fracking) and production where natural gas is consistently extracted and typically lasts for the longest period of time.

The team’s members plan to look into specific causes for the upward trend, but they suspect air pollution or elevated stress due increased noise levels might play a role.

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