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Right Now | Airborne Executioner

Fracking’s Deadly Toll

July-August 2022

Illustration of a city downwind from a fracking well

Illustration by Matt Chinworth


Illustration by Matt Chinworth

During the past two decades, U.S. oil and gas production has soared as hydraulic fracturing technology has made it possible to exploit formerly inaccessible resources. Drillers fracture (hence “fracking”) oil- and gas-containing rock formations with explosive charges, pump fluids into the fissures to crack them open, and thus release petroleum and natural gas trapped deep below the surface. The fracking revolution reversed a decades-long decline in American production—and since 2018 the United States has been the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas.

America’s booming oil and natural gas industry has been a major economic engine that has also given the United States and its allies significant geopolitical leverage—on full display in March when President Joe Biden pledged to increase American natural gas exports to help reduce European reliance on Russian natural gas. Today, the United States is Europe’s largest supplier of natural gas and is helping millions of Europeans keep the lights on during a difficult time. But a team of Harvard researchers has found that the increase in unconventional oil and natural gas production may come at a terrible price for Americans living near fracking wells.

In a first-of-its-kind study, the researchers examined data from more than 15 million Medicare recipients who lived near oil and gas fracking sites between 2001 and 2015 to understand how proximity to unconventional natural gas wells affected mortality. The researchers were particularly interested in the effects of airborne pollutants released during the fracking process, which include volatile organic compounds and radioactive particles. Using historical weather data, the researchers divided their elderly cohort into groups living upwind or downwind from active fracking sites to see whether greater exposure to airborne pollutants in the downwind cohort corresponded with lower life expectancy.

In each of the three major U.S. fracking regions they studied—the Northeast, Midwest, and South—the researchers found that the risk of premature death was 3.5 percent higher for elderly people living downwind of fracking sites compared to the national average, and 2.2 percent higher for elderly people living upwind of fracking sites. Although the researchers couldn’t determine the cause of death or exact number of deaths from exposure to fracking, they estimate that it results in several thousand premature deaths every year.

“All people living close to fracking wells have a higher health risk, but it’s higher for people living downwind,” said lead author Longxiang Li, a research fellow in the department of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This made us more confident that it has something to do with air pollution rather than water pollution” (a separate concern associated with fracking, given the volume of liquids used in the process).

Earlier studies have shown that living near fracking sites is associated with a host of health problems such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight. But very few studies have examined fracking-related impacts on life expectancy. Even though the researchers were not able to determine the type of airborne pollutants that correspond with premature death near fracking sites, their new study builds on previous work that provides a few clues.

In late 2020, Li collaborated with Harvard colleagues to examine the impact of fracking on the abundance of ambient radioactive particles. Natural gas wells frequently come into contact with underground uranium-238, which is a precursor to a radioactive isotope called radium-226. When radium-226 is brought to the surface during drilling or pumping of a fracked well, it decays into radon-222, a gas that can spread its radioactivity by attaching to airborne particles. In a forthcoming study, the researchers found elevated levels of radon near fracking sites.

“Prior to this study there was no information or even suspicion about radon in fracking,” said Petros Koutrakis, a professor of environmental sciences and director of the EPA/Harvard University Center for Ambient Particle Health Effects, who co-authored the study. “Today, wastewater from these fracking facilities is disposed of in fields or municipal landfills and isn’t considered a radioactive waste. But we don’t really know what stage in the fracking process produces the most radon, so that needs to be studied so we can use engineering controls to eliminate it or take better care of the waste material.”

“All people living close to fracking wells have a higher health risk,” especially those downwind.

It’s uncertain whether the radioactive particles produced during fracking are to blame for the higher risk of premature death discovered by Li, Koutrakis, and their colleagues. Increased exposure to diesel engines from the trucks carrying tons of fluids and fracking sand to the wells, or the volatile organic compounds that are released during fracking, could be to blame. The only way to resolve this mystery is to collect more data. “There are no EPA monitoring stations around most fracking wells because they’re far from population centers in rural areas, but if we don’t have monitors, we don’t have data,” said Li. “We hope in the future we can fund a study to deploy mobile monitors downwind from fracking wells to have a better idea of what’s in the air.” Understanding the primary sources of radioactivity during the fracking process and the composition of the resulting airborne pollutants is key to crafting effective regulation to limit their harmful effects. Given that the U.S. natural gas industry is expected to continue to grow through 2050, and more than 17 million people—that’s one out of every 20 Americans—live within one kilometer of a fracking well, the research has taken on a special urgency. But the Harvard scholars are prepared for a protracted search to find the support they need from policymakers and grant-making institutions to better understand the problem.

“We need better information about what is released and then we can have better regulations, but the amount of funding that goes for this research is nothing—it’s peanuts,” said Koutrakis. “Hopefully the research we’re doing now helps us have a more regulated industry similar to coal plants so we can protect populations near those areas. Oil and gas production is a tremendous economic and industrial sector, but it needs to be regulated and have specific emissions standards.” 

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