In the first major study of its kind, researchers have found that elderly people living nearby fracking operations, and especially downwind from the sites, are at a greater risk of premature death.
Published in the journal Nature Energy, the study found that living near unconventional oil and gas developments (UOGD) increased seniors’ mortality rates about 2.5%, reports The Guardian.
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Mortality rates for seniors living both nearby and downwind were found to be about 3.5% higher than among those living farther from UOGD, pointing to the dangers of airborne toxins emanating from such developments, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides.
“Compared with traditional drilling, unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) is linked to higher levels of exposure to toxic air pollution and poor water quality, as well as noise and light pollution which can be harmful to human health,” notes the Guardian.
Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health researchers reached their conclusions by studying the Medicare health insurance records of 15 million seniors “living in all significant drilling regions” in the United States between 2001 and 2015, together with data they gathered on roughly 2.5 million oil and gas wells across the country.
The conclusion that proximity to UOGD increases the risk of premature death in seniors pertained even after researchers accounted for demographic factors like gender and race, as well as socioeconomic and environmental variables.
“Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental Health and the study’s lead author.
“As of 2015, more than 100,000 onshore UOGD wells have been drilled, with many clustered around densely populated residential areas,” writes the Guardian, adding that at least 17.6 million U.S. citizens now live within one kilometre of an active fracking well.
And many of these people are poor or people of colour.
Study co-author Petros Koutrakis, an environmental sciences professor at Harvard, said little is known about the public health impacts of UOGD, even though it constitutes a “major industrial activity in the U.S.” He urged further research into how living near a fracking site affects lifespan and quality of life.