Connecting the dots between chronic, small-dose exposure to toxic substances and resulting illness takes time and money. This has been the case time and again when studying cancer clusters and groundwater pollution (think A Civil Action in Woburn, MA) or asthma rates and vehicle exhaust emissions along Los Angeles transportation corridors.
That’s why this recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia caught my eye. It tested the association of hospitalizations in three Pennsylvania counties with the number of hydraulic fracturing wells in the area. First, its methodology was straight forward: correlate inpatient discharge numbers from the state’s Healthcare Cost Containment Council with active wells by zip code in two counties, Bradford and Susquehanna, over a four-year period. Second, it is a case control study, where people living in a county without fracking wells (nearby Wayne County, where fracking is banned because it lies within the Delaware River watershed) but who otherwise look the same as those living near the wells were used as a control.
Results? Hospital admissions for cardiology conditions increased with the number of wells. Or as the study puts it, “were significantly associated with number of wells per zip code.” Neurological admissions went up with increases in well density, i.e. “were significantly associated with wells per km2.” More associations were noted with well density and dermatology, oncology, and urology admissions. Bottom line: Residents of Bradford and Susquehanna counties (including my uncle and aunt) were more likely to be admitted to the hospital for heart, nervous system and other medical conditions than their neighbors in Wayne County.
Bernard Goldstein, an environmental toxicologist and a former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said that the study is “careful in how they present this. They don’t present this as definitive evidence. It isn’t. But it is certainly something to make one even more upset about the fact that until now it has not been possible in Pennsylvania to do the kind of studies that would give a definitive answer.”