Creative Minds: Exploring the Health Effects of Fracking
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
A few years ago, Elaine Hill was a doctoral student in applied economics at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, studying maize markets in Uganda  and dairy supply chains in the northeastern U.S . But when fracking—a controversial, hydraulic fracturing technique used to produce oil and natural gas—became a hot topic in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Hill was motivated to shift gears.
After watching a documentary about fracking, Hill decided to search for scientific evidence on its possible health effects, but found relatively little high-quality data. So, she embarked on a new project—one that eventually earned her a Ph.D.—to evaluate what, if any, impact fracking has on infant and child health. Now, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hill is pursuing this line of research further as an assistant professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY.
During the fracking process, production crews bore up to a mile or more into the ground to tap deposits of oil and gas trapped in shale and other underground rock formations. They then inject large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at very high pressures, fracturing the rock and releasing oil and gas deposits through what’s commonly known as a “shale gas well.” Most health concerns focus on potentially toxic chemicals in the mix created by fracking, which either remains underground or is stored in above-ground waste ponds. These chemicals—ranging from acids to hydrocarbons—have the potential to enter air, soil, and/or groundwater.
In 2013, at an International Society for Environmental Epidemiology conference, Hill presented results based on birth records and drilling sites exploring the health effects of fracking on babies born to mothers living near shale gas wells in Colorado and Pennsylvania . Among 2,500 infants born in Pennsylvania, Hill found that newborns living within 1 1/2 miles of a well weighed less on average than those born in the same area before the drilling took place. Similarly, in a sample of 22,000 births in Colorado, she found that infants living within about a half mile of a well weighed less at birth and were more often born prematurely in comparison to those living about 1 to 3 miles from the nearest well. While those early results are unsettling, they are preliminary—and more research is clearly needed to confirm Hill’s findings and explore other important questions in this highly controversial area.
In her new work, Hill plans to study communities near shale gas wells to see whether those located on land with non-negotiated or inferior lease terms—which dictate the conditions under which oil and gas producers may drill—have fewer environmental and health protections. If that turns out to be the case, she’ll then look for possible associations between less stringent protections and health problems, particularly reproductive health outcomes and respiratory diseases in children. In addition, Hill plans to study child health outcomes in fracking communities with those in demographically similar communities where no fracking has occurred.
Hill’s work comes as a reminder that protecting and improving our health requires many creative minds. That will take many different approaches to pursue many different kinds of scientific questions, including those with major environmental and societal implications.
 Local and Regional Procurement of Food Aid in Uganda: The Experience of Maize Traders. Upton, J, Hill E. Working Paper. March 2011.
 Environmental and Economic Impacts of Localizing Food Systems: The Case of Dairy Supply Chains in the Northeastern United States. Nicholson CF, He X, Gómez MI, Gao HO, Hill E. Environ Sci Technol. 2015 Oct 20;49(20):12005-14.
 Hydraulic Fracturing and Infant Health: Evidence From Pennsylvania and Colorado. Hill E. International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) abstract. 2013
Impacts of Fracking (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences/NIH)
Elaine Hill (University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Rochester, NY)
Hill NIH Project Information (NIH RePORTER)
NIH Early Independence Award Program (Common Fund)
NIH Support: Common Fund