Digest Index

Fracking - The Kiss of Death?

Thousands more Lancashire people to suffer heart and related health problems through fracking?
Millions of pounds extra needed in Fylde every year for health care?

New PA report establishes firm link between fracking wells and increased heart and associated health problems.

On July 15th this year a new report was issued by researchers from two US universities which may have vital importance in looking at how fracking affects health. It is worth reading the abstract in full - see below.

Researchers from Penn University and Columbia University studies the data from databases containing over 198,000 hospitalisation records, taken from the North-Eastern Pennsylvania counties of Bradford, Susquehanna and Wayne. Wayne acted as a control county as the proximity to water sources means that Wayne has no fracking activity.  

Statistics were analysed by the team across the top 25 specific medical categories for hospitalizations, as defined by the Pennsylvania Health Cost Containment Council, and over the formative years of Pennsylvania fracking between 2007 and 2011. The analysis related hospital stays to area of residence, and well density per sq km in patient zip code areas.

A firm statistical connection was established between well density and incidence of cardiology inpatient stays. In areas which had a density of gas wells over 0.79 per sq km, there appeared a jump of 27% in cardiology prevalence rates. In areas with over 0.17 wells per sq km the raise was contained to 14%.

This is a startling and significant research finding. Although the researchers also found a statistical correlation between fracking wells and other health issues under headings such as dermatology, neurology, oncology, and urology, it was the cardiological correlation which stands out as most clear and beyond dispute. Its significance is that is based purely on factual data, firm statistical evidence rather than self-reported illness or reliance on anecdotal evidence. It is the first report which is independent of assumptions between cause and effect, the facts have spoken for themselves, and can not be denied.


What does this mean for the Fylde?


Fylde is part of Cuadrilla’s PEDL165 licence area, which is of 1180 square kilometers, although because of urbanisation a smaller area would be available for fracking, probably less than 1000 sq km.

Cuadrilla have often repeated their ambition to site between 80 and 100 wellpads in this area. They have boasted of the possibility of each wellpad perhaps consisting of 10 or 12 vertical wellbores each with up to 3 or 4 horizontal wells connected. That is, up to maybe anything between 3,000 and 4,000 wells in total. In other words a well density in excess of 3 per sq km. Four times the Pennsylvania trigger limit for a 27% increase in heart problems. And no less than 30 times the AVERAGE well density over the two Bradford (3007) sq km and Susquehanna (2155 sq km) counties, whose active well count in 2011 was 598 (an average of only 0.1158 wells per sq km (The average wells per pad was something between 4 and 5).

Even if only 80 pads were drilled in PEDL165, with ten wells per pad, this would put every square mile of the Fylde and West Lancashire area at serious risk of increased health problems.

Consider, too, the fact that the population of the three Borough areas of PEDL 165, Fylde, Wyre and West Lancs, have an average population density of around 375 per sq km, in comparison the Bradford and Susquehanna average density is just over TWENTY. The boroughs’ population is around 300,000, the total population of Bradford and Susquehanna is in comparison under 105,000, including urban areas. To the Boroughs population we would have to add the large population of Blackpool, Preston, Leyland, Chorley and Southport to realise that a far greater number of Lancashire people may be put at risk.

These statistics should be enough to persuade anyone that fracking the Fylde at an industrial levl would be an act of criminal folly.

What might the effects be?

If the figures followed the Pennsylvania pattern, we could expect no more than 135 wells (ie horizontals, not wellpads) would take the Fylde into an increased 14% risk zone. Anything over 630 would take us into risk of increased 27% or more prevalence of heart and circulatory problems.

Hospital cardiology admissions might be an extra 1300 per year. (Actually the analysis was done on discharges, so the patients who died during inpatient treatment did not figure in the statistics).

However looking at North West and Fylde/Wyre prevalence rates (rather than hospitalisations) it would seem that cardio prevalence is greater on average than in PA.

If the borough area were typical of the north west we might see prevalence predictions add another 3218 people onto  the coronary register in the three boroughs area, half that under a 400 well scenario. An extra 1500 or so on the stroke register.

Looking at Fylde and Wyre we recognise the rates are higher than average for England presumably due to older population. So coming to the crunch locally, anything over 600 wells might boost the numbers of people with chronic heart disease by 2,340. This may increase the annual health spending by over 7 million pounds.

It is disturbing to note the high prevalence of heart problems is not confined to the Fylde and dictated by demographics. Statistics show that we in the North of England have higher prevalence of cardiology problems, and die and have more years cut off our lives than our fellow countrymen in the South of England. A further clear example of the North-South divide. It seems we don't receive the same quality of health care up here.

Although the authors of the US report do not assume any cause of the statistical correlation, they do mention the fact that since heart, stroke, and hypertension health issues stood out from all the other diseases and reasons for hospital admission included in their survey, stress may be a cause worth investigation. It is worth noting in this context, however, that the survey data related to a period before the upturn in awareness of fracking’s problems in the US, and therefore the likelihood of stress caused by living near a fracking site. Together with the increase of wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2011 the report authors consider that the report’s findings may suggest a worse outcome if carried out again. For sure, as Lancashire's health director pointed out in his contribution to the debate on the health risks of Cuadrilla's Fylde fracking applications, stress is a very significant and worrying factor in the North-West of England when considering even the proposaed use of the proccess.


What can we do?

There is only one simple answer. The precautionary principle. We must kill fracking before it kills us.

Jemielita T, Gerton GL, Neidell M, Chillrud S, Yan B, Stute M, et al. (2015) Unconventional Gas and Oil Drilling Is Associated with Increased Hospital Utilization Rates.
Over the past ten years, unconventional gas and oil drilling (UGOD) has markedly expanded in the United States. Despite substantial increases in well drilling, the health consequences of UGOD toxicant exposure remain unclear. This study examines an association between wells and healthcare use by zip code from 2007 to 2011 in Pennsylvania. Inpatient discharge databases from the Pennsylvania Healthcare Cost Containment Council were correlated with active wells by zip code in three counties in Pennsylvania. For overall inpatient prevalence rates and 25 specific medical categories, the association of inpatient prevalence rates with number of wells per zip code and, separately, with wells per km2 (separated into quantiles and defined as well density) were estimated using fixed-effects Poisson models. To account for multiple comparisons, a Bonferroni correction with associations of p<0.00096 was considered statistically significant. Cardiology inpatient prevalence rates were significantly associated with number of wells per zip code (p<0.00096) and wells per km2 (p<0.00096) while neurology inpatient prevalence rates were significantly associated with wells per km2 (p<0.00096). Furthermore, evidence also supported an association between well density and inpatient prevalence rates for the medical categories of dermatology, neurology, oncology, and urology. These data suggest that UGOD wells, which dramatically increased in the past decade, were associated with increased inpatient prevalence rates within specific medical categories in Pennsylvania. Further studies are necessary to address healthcare costs of UGOD and determine whether specific toxicants or combinations are associated with organ-specific responses.
Full Report:
download from plosone.org