Exposure to Fracking Tied to Increased Mortality Risk in Elderly 

February 1, 2022 by Reece Nations
<strong>Exposure to Fracking Tied to Increased Mortality Risk in Elderly </strong>
A natural gas well is juxtaposed with apartment buildings a few hundred feet away in Arlington, Texas, on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

SAN ANTONIO — Exposure to harmful agents associated with hydraulic fracturing has been tied for the first time to increased mortality risk for elderly residents by a Harvard study.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the process in which oil companies drill horizontally underground and blast fluid commonly containing methanol, ethylene glycol and propargyl alcohol to break up rock and release fossil fuels.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that exposure to a mix of airborne contaminants from this type of oil and gas development led to an early death risk 2.5% higher for individuals aged 65 and older who lived in close proximity to the wells.

Senior citizens who resided upwind from oil and gas developments were found to have a higher risk of premature death than those who resided far enough away to avoid exposure to air pollution originating from the wells. The risk of mortality grew the closer the individuals lived to the fracking sites.


The study, published last week in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Energy, examined more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in the major fracking regions of western Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado.

Longxiang Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s Department of Environmental Health and lead author of the study, said that the trend of increased mortality risk was witnessed in all of the examined regions and therefore could be reasonably generalized to other regions in the country where fracking is prevalent.

“According to our analysis, prevailing wind direction should be considered when determining the location of well pads,” Li told The Well News. “Also, common methods such as fences can mitigate the influence on nearby residents. Residents can also install indoor air cleaners to mitigate the risk passively.”

The researchers gathered data from over 2.5 million oil and gas wells throughout the country and utilized a pair of different statistical methods to calculate nearby residents’ levels of exposure. The health impact analysis of the Medicare beneficiaries was adjusted for “socioeconomic, environmental and demographic factors,” according to the text of the study.

Airborne pollutants emanate directly from the wellheads and are also caused by the burning of pockets of natural gas to safely reach the fossil fuels underground through a process known as “flaring.”


Further, the researchers report in the study that various activities associated with fracking — such as construction, well drilling and the use of diesel equipment — also contribute to air pollution in surrounding communities.

“As an industry we rely on data, facts and science, and we put that in practice every day by employing thousands of scientists and engineers that are innovating, safely producing, refining and delivering affordable, reliable energy to Americans in cleaner ways,” Uni Blake, public health toxicologist at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a written statement shared with The Well News.

“We acknowledge and appreciate the effort undertaken to address community health concerns, and we are in the process of reviewing and evaluating the findings presented. It is our top priority to protect the safety of the communities and environment in which we operate.”

Blake also maintained that these results should be evaluated in the context of both the study’s strengths and limitations while stopping short of commenting on the findings directly.

Some of the health-related repercussions resulting from proximity-based exposure to the oil and gas developments include increased risk of hospitalization, upper respiratory tract infections and migraine headaches.

The association between exposure to unconventional oil and gas developments and all-cause mortality among the elderly was not quantified in the study and no reports on the matter currently exist.

Li explained this is because the study only examined whether there were correlations between increased mortality risk and proximity-based exposure to fracking while neglecting to specifically quantify the true number of deaths related to exposure.


“We don’t have a peer-reviewed count of mortality due to the proportional nature of the models,” Li said. “We can only estimate the magnitude of the loss. It should be in the thousands per year. But please note, this is only the magnitude. It just means that the loss is not huge nor ignorable.” 

Reece can be reached at [email protected]

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