Fleet owners in the U.S. have been turning to compressed natural gas as a "clean" alternative to diesel and gasoline, but a new study of natural gas fracking in Pennsylvania suggests that there are deep holes in the strategy.
The new study, from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, links a significant increase in hospitalizations to a "meteoric" increase in the number and density of natural gas wells in two Pennsylvania counties.
The latest fracking study looked at three northeastern Pennsylvania counties with comparable demographics. Bradford and Susquehanna counties experienced an increase in fracking activity during the study period, from 2007 to 2011. The third, Wayne County, had no new wells during the study period and was used as a control model.
The study looked at 198,000 hospitalizations by zip code, from 2007 to 2011. The in-patient stays were categorized by cost, and the top 25 categories were selected for analysis.
The findings (break added):
" ... revealed that cardiology and neurologic inpatient prevalence rates (the proportion of a population found to have been hospitalized per 100 residents per year) were significantly higher in areas closer to active wells, as determined by the proximity of wells to a person’s home and their density as defined by the number of active wells per square kilometer.
"In addition, increased neurologic inpatient prevalence rates were associated with higher well density. Hospitalizations for skin conditions, cancer, and urologic problems were also associated with the proximity of dwellings to active wells."
" ... While the clinical significance of the association remains to be shown, UGOD has just begun in Pennsylvania, and thus observing a significant association over this short time is remarkable."
"Our study also supports the concept that health care utilization should be factored into the value (costs and benefits) of hydraulic fracturing over time."
This fourth study is certainly not the last straw for natural gas fracking, but scores of local communities have already banned the practice, and just this summer, New York state and Maryland transitioned from moratorium to permanent ban.
In that regard, it is notable that the third county in the Pennsylvania study, Wayne, had no new wells during the study period because of a moratorium imposed by the Delaware River Basin Commission, due to potential impacts on the Delaware watershed.
The legislative response indicates that awareness of the potential for negative impacts is growing, and the increase in hospital visits indicates that part of this trend is linked to direct exposure rather than a general environmental concern or hearsay.
In that context, it is notable that the new fracking study covered only in-patient hospital stays. If there is also a corresponding increase in visits to doctors' offices, walk-in clinics and urgent care facilities, the level of concern related to direct exposure will increase accordingly.
However, with evidence of negative impacts mounting, fleet managers are best advised to explore alternatives including electric vehicles, biogas, liquid biofuel or fuel cells powered by renewable biogas.