Health Impacts of Unconventional Drilling
ONGP Health Registry
Oil and natural gas production (ONGP) is a prominent industry in Pennsylvania. To date, there have been approximately 350,000 conventional oil and natural gas and 10,000 unconventional natural gas wells drilled in the state. Conventional wells are drilled vertically into shallow, more easily accessible geologic formations. Unconventional wells involve both horizontal and vertical drilling and high-pressure, high-volume hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking” or “fracing”). These wells are typically deeper than conventional wells and can access traditionally unavailable reservoirs of oil and natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica Shales to depths of 10,000-12,000 feet below the surface (seven to eight Empire State Buildings). These deposits cover a wide swath of Appalachian states (West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio), but the deposits located under Pennsylvania are reported to represent the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
Both unconventional and conventional wells are often located near residential areas, and there are growing concerns among the public, media and researchers about environmental contamination of water, air and soil from drilling and associated operations (e.g., pipelines, compressor stations, wastewater storage). These concerns have raised numerous questions about adverse health impacts associated with ONGP and especially with unconventional oil and natural gas development (UONGD) in light of the recent increase in UONGD activities. In response to these concerns, the Division of Environmental Health Epidemiology created a separate program area dedicated to UONGD. In March 2011, the Division began documenting residents’ health complaints related to UONGD, and in March 2017, the UONGD health complaints registry was launched. In January 2018, the name of the program area and the health complaints registry was changed to oil and natural gas production (ONGP) to cover potential health impacts of both unconventional and conventional drilling.
Health Impacts of Unconventional Drilling
Recently there has been increased interest in UONGD by academic researchers. When most people think of unconventional oil and natural gas development (UONGD) they only think of wells and well pads, but there is an entire network of compressor stations, natural gas processing plants and pipelines in addition to the drill rigs and accompanying access roads that make for several points of concern from a health perspective. UONGD may negatively impact water, air and soil quality. It may also involve excessive noise, light and vibrations from seismic testing and cause vehicular injuries from increased truck traffic or other injuries or emergencies from well explosions or flooding. What is more are the mainly mental health impacts related to the disruption of rural communities and the influx of young male workers. Together these factors may directly impact health or indirectly impact health through increased stress, anxiety and reduced sleep. For workers and their families and sensitive populations (e.g., pregnant women, children and elderly), the health consequences of UONGD may be more severe.
Most epidemiologic research to this point has compared the health outcomes of those living varying distances from unconventional well sites as a substitute for exposure to UONGD. There have been very few studies that have measured exposure directly.1 Overall, epidemiologic work has found some limited evidence of relationships between living near UONGD and poor infant health
2,3,4,5,6 and worsening respiratory symptoms.7,8 Infant health is unique in that the timing of exposure can be pinpointed (within a 9-month period) more precisely than for other health symptoms or outcomes.
Although an early county-level study found no association between UONGD and children's cancer incidence in Pennsylvania9 the effect of UONGD on cancer and cancer-related deaths is still unknown. In general, the latency period (the time lag between when exposure occurs and diagnosis) for cancer is at least a few years. Over the next several years, researchers will be able to more accurately study exposure to UONGD and cancer incidence as the latency periods are reached.
ONGP Health Registry
The Division of Environmental Health Epidemiology has developed a registry for collecting all ONGP-related health concerns of residents in Pennsylvania. Demographic and health symptom information will be collected over the phone by a trained employee.
Submission of information to this registry is voluntary. The information collected will be kept confidential (subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act [HIPPA] of 1996) and will be used to better track and respond to health complaints from citizens and may be used for future epidemiological studies. The department will evaluate environmental and clinical data as indicated and when appropriate determine individuals' health risk, develop recommendations to protect the public's health and alleviate concern. The Department of Health, however, is an advisory agency only. The Department of Environmental Protection is the state agency that regulates oil and gas activities in the state and collects environmental samples.
Contact us if you have ONGP-related health concerns to be part of the registry.
For older ONGP reports, please visit the E-library
ATSDR Region 3DEP Office of Oil and Gas Management
Frequently Asked Questions about ONGP – updated January 2019
ATSDR Environmental Health and Medicine Education
ATSDR Toxic Substances Portal
Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)
DEP PA Oil and Gas Mapping
Department of Energy Shale Gas 101
Energy Information Administration Natural Gas Explained
Environmental Health Channel
EPA Controlling Air Pollution from the Oil and Natural Gas Industry
EPA Natural Gas Extraction – Hydraulic Fracturing
EPA Ozone Pollution
OSHA Oil and Gas Extraction
Penn State Extension Water Resources
Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research
Repository for Oil and Gas Energy Research (ROGER)
University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine Occupational and Environmental Medicine