Rise in hospitalization rates tied to increased fracking

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 5, 2016

Key Takeaways

Hospitalization rates have risen in areas of Pennsylvania where hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has increased, according to a new analysis from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and Columbia University in New York.

Hospitalizations for heart and neurologic illnesses rose significantly in these areas, while dermatologic, oncologic, and urologic conditions also increased.

In this study, the researchers looked at inpatient hospital records in areas of Pennsylvania within the Marcellus shale region. They found that hospitalizations had increased among patients in areas that also experienced dramatic increases in the number of active drilling wells. Their findings were published in PLoS ONE.

In the past 10 years, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas production has mushroomed in the United States. Despite this record growth in drilling, the health consequences related to fracking are still being determined. Residents who live near drilling operations have voiced concerns about the possible health threats from potential air and water pollution.

To gather data on this issue, researchers from the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET) at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, examined the link between drilling well density and health care use by zip code from 2007 to 2011 in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The researchers chose to study three counties—Bradford, Susquehanna, and Wayne—that lie on the Marcellus shale formation. Bradford and Susquehanna counties had a significant increase in drilling during this time period, while Wayne was used as the control county because it had no active wells due to a drilling ban related to its proximity to the Delaware River watershed.

Using databases that contained over 198,000 hospitalizations (which includes multiple hospitalizations for the same person), the researchers examined the top 25 specific medical categories. They associated these categories with residents’ proximity to active wells.

Their findings revealed that cardiology inpatient prevalence rates were significantly higher in areas closer to active wells. In addition, increased neurologic inpatient prevalence rates were associated with higher well density. Hospitalizations for dermatologic, cancer, and urologic problems were also associated with living near active wells.

“At this point, we suspect that residents are exposed to many toxicants, noise, and social stressors due to hydraulic fracturing near their homes and this may add to the increased number of hospitalizations,” said senior author Reynold Panettieri, Jr, MD, a professor of medicine and CEET deputy director. “This study represents one of the most comprehensive to date to link health effects with hydraulic fracturing.”

The study does not prove that hydraulic fracturing directly causes these health problems, the authors wrote, although the increased hospitalization rates during this relatively short time span suggest that health care costs must be factored into the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing. “With an inpatient stay costing on average $30K, this poses a significant economic health burden to the Commonwealth of PA,” the authors concluded.

Because hydraulic fracturing has only grown since 2011, when their data period ended, the researchers called for further studies to determine how specific toxicants or combinations may increase hospitalization rates.

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