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Does Exposure to Natural Gas Wells Make People Sick? Proposed Health Study Can Find Out

Energy
Does Exposure to Natural Gas Wells Make People Sick? Proposed Health Study Can Find Out

Frack Check WV

By Duane Nichols

A proposed study of people in northern Pennsylvania could help resolve a national debate about whether the natural gas boom is making people sick.

The study would look at detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of people who live near the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in which energy companies have already drilled about 5,000 natural gas wells.

If the study goes forward, it would be the first large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment of the health effects of gas production.

In recent years, there have been lots of anecdotal reports about people who say they have been harmed by the chemicals associated with gas wells and the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

When ozone levels get really high, asthma patients start showing up in emergency rooms. About 6 percent of people in the U.S. have asthma, Dr. Paul Simonelli says, “so we’re talking about an enormous number of people who are potentially at risk to have their conditions worsened by these exposures.”

And the Geisinger Health System database contains such detailed information that it’s possible to figure out things like precisely how far each asthma patient lives from a gas well, says Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Schwartz, who is working with Geisinger on the project, says the plan is to use air quality data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify days when ozone levels are high, then use the database to answer a series of questions about asthma patients. Questions such as: “Are they being admitted to the hospital? Are they requiring emergency department visits? Are they using more inhalers?”

“Because we have 10 years of health data, but the drilling has mainly been for the past five years, we have a period with information on asthma patients and controls before drilling, [as well as] a period after drilling,” he says.

There’s one big hitch, though, Schwartz says. The asthma study alone is likely to cost nearly a million dollars—and no one has offered to pay for it yet. Even so, Schwartz is optimistic. One reason, he says, is that the research has strong support at Geisinger—from the CEO on down.

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A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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