Unconventional Drilling Is Associated with Increased Hospital Utilization Rates

Jan Jarrett |

A new study by the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University finds that people living near active gas drilling go to the hospital more frequently than people who do not live near active gas drilling. These sobering findings coming from an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal should prompt a hard review of existing gas drilling regulations.

The study found that some but not all medical conditions became more common as the number and density (wells per square kilometer) of wells in a zip code increased. Specifically, people living near concentrations of wells had higher hospitalization rates for cardiologic, neurologic, urology, and skin conditions. If a zip code went from having 0 wells per square kilometer to being in one of 19 (out of 67) zip codes with the densest concentration of wells, cardiologic conditions increased an estimated 27%. The study was only possible because of a treasure trove of data maintained by Pennsylvania’s internationally recognized Health Care Cost Containment Council – a record of 93,000 hospitalizations over five years in two drilling counties (Bradford and Susquehanna) and one non-drilling county (Wayne).

While the study does not conclusively prove that gas drilling activity causes diseases, the authors theorize that exposure to toxics, diesel fumes from heavy truck traffic, noise and social stresses increase the number of people sick enough to be hospitalized.

This addition to the literature on the health impacts of drilling reinforces the conclusion of the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative (MSSRC) that the costs of drilling have to be weighed alongside a realistic assessment of economic benefits when considering public policy on drilling. In case studies and a statistical study published last year, the MSSC found that high levels of drilling activity were associated with substantial community and socio-economic impacts. These included increases in crime, fatalities from accidents involving trucks, sexually transmitted diseases and rents. These disruptions can be particularly hard on the poor, seniors and other community members who do not benefit from the modest increase in jobs and wealth that intensive gas drilling creates.

Pennsylvania does not currently have a system to track when health effects have a direct connection to gas drilling. The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission recommended the creation of a health registry to track health complaints related to drilling, and such a provision was included but then deleted from Act 13, the gas drilling regulation overhaul passed by the General Assembly in 2012. Governor Wolf proposed allocating $100,000 in his state budget to begin setting up a registry, but the current budget impasse has delayed, and may eliminate, that funding.

The Department of Environmental Protection is currently updating the regulations that address gas drilling. The findings of the highly credible health study done by Penn and Columbia underscore the value of good data. These findings also underscore the need for better regulation of drilling. This should include the collection of hard data that can help researchers and policymakers refine our understanding of when health problems have a causal connection to drilling.