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An elevated risk of early mortality has been related to living close or downwind of unconventional oil and gas operations

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According to a large new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, elderly people who live near or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) — which includes extraction methods such as directional (non-vertical) drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — have a higher risk of early death than elderly people who do not live near such operations.

According to the researchers, the findings show that airborne pollutants generated by UOGD and transferred downwind are related to higher mortality.

The work will be published in Nature Energy on January 27, 2022.

“Despite the fact that UOGD is a significant industrial operation in the United States, little is known about its public health implications. Ours is the first research to correlate UOGD-related air pollution exposures to mortality “Professor of environmental sciences and senior author of the paper Petros Koutrakis remarked. “There is an urgent need to understand the causal relationship between living close or downwind of UOGD and harmful health impacts,” said co-author Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science.

Over the last decade, UOGD has grown at a remarkable pace. According to the report, directional drilling coupled with fracking was used to drill more over 100,000 UOGD land-based wells as of 2015. Approximately 17.6 million people in the United States live within one kilometer of an operating well. Compared to traditional oil and gas drilling, UOGD needs more water, proppants (sand or other materials used to keep hydraulic fractures open), and chemicals during the fracking process, as well as longer building times and bigger well pads (the space covered by equipment or facilities).

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Previous research has shown links between UOGD activities and increased human exposure to dangerous compounds in the air and water, as well as links between UOGD exposure and negative prenatal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and carcinogenic health consequences. However, nothing was known regarding whether or if exposure to UOGD was linked to an increased risk of death in the elderly, or how UOGD-related behaviors would contribute to that risk.

From 2001 to 2015, the researchers investigated a cohort of almost 15 million Medicare beneficiaries (those 65 and older) who lived in all main UOGD exploration zones in the United States. They also acquired information from over 2.5 million oil and gas well records. The researchers used two different statistical approaches to calculate what the exposure to pollutants would be from living close to UOGD operations, downwind of them, or both, while adjusting for socioeconomic, environmental, and demographic factors for each Medicare beneficiary’s ZIP code and year in the cohort.

The research discovered that the closer individuals lived near UOGD wells, the higher their risk of early death. When compared to those who did not reside near wells, those who lived closest to wells had a statistically significant greater mortality risk (2.5 percent higher). When both groups were compared to persons who were not exposed, the research discovered that people who lived near UOGD wells as well as downwind of them had a greater risk of early mortality than those who resided upwind.

“Our results show that the possible health risks of locating UOGD close or upwind of people’s houses should be considered,” said Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Environmental Health and the study’s primary author.

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Falco Bargagli-Stoffi, Joel Schwartz, Brent Coull, John Spengler, Yaguang Wei, and Joy Lawrence are among the other Harvard Chan School co-authors of the research.

The research was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant RD-835872, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant R01 MD012769, and Harvard University’s Climate Change Solutions Fund.

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