Hydraulic fracturing - or fracking - is a process of injecting water, sand and chemicals into deep layers of rock at high pressure to release oil and natural gas, also known as "shale gas". At the same time the radioactive elements Radium and Uranium present in the rock are released. Large volumes of water are used in fracking and much of it returns to the surface and may contaminate surface water and groundwater. Pennsylvania was one of the first regions to allow fracking. The new study used official data from the US Centre for Disease Control. It compared an early 4-year period (2003-2006), when 44 fracking wells were drilled, with the following 4 years (2007- 2010) when nearly 3000 were drilled.
The mortality rate increased by 29% across the 10 most heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. It increased by 66% in the five heavily fracked counties in the north-east. The rate for the whole of Pennsylvania fell by 2% over the same period. The evidence suggests that contamination of drinking water is driving the effect. It is thought that the difference between the north-eastern and south-western parts of Pennsylvania may be because in the north west more people depend on privately owned wells. Differences in the underlying geology may also play a part.
Report author Professor Chris Busby said “A major component of early infant mortality is congenital malformations like heart, neurological, and kidney defects. These are known to be caused by exposures to Radium and Uranium in drinking water".
Co-author Joe Mangano added, “These results raise serious questions about potential health hazards of fracking, especially since the fetus and infant are most susceptible to environmental pollutants. This is a public health issue which should be investigated wherever fracking is being carried out or proposed.”
Press release from Environmental Research SIA
More reporting in The Ecologist