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New Study Links Asthma with Fracking

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have published a study linking unconventional gas development with asthma attacks.

“We found that patients living closer to more—or bigger—unconventional natural gas wells had higher risk for an asthma attack,” says Sara Rasmussen, the study’s lead author.

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Researchers analyzed more than 35,000 health records of asthma patients in the Geisinger health system, which operates in north and central Pennsylvania. The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is the first of its kind to use objective health data to study fracking’s impact on breathing problems.

“It’s not that someone said they went to the hospital or had an asthma attack,” Rasmussen says. “We know the date because it happened. It’s recorded in the Geisinger clinic’s electronic health record.”

The study doesn’t say how the asthma attacks were brought on. But the researchers say air pollution, stress and exposure to truck traffic near gas wells are possible explanations.

“They’re all potential ways that unconventional natural gas development could affect asthma exacerbations.”

Rasmussen says the team’s next step is to try to identify the exact cause of the asthma uptick in Pennsylvania’s fracking country.

Reporting by Kara Holsopple


Regulators Face Stiff Challenge in Expanding Pipeline Safety Rules

Federal officials are still investigating what caused a natural gas pipeline explosion in Westmoreland County back in April. The incident badly burned one man and destroyed his home. And while the government pursues its investigation, regulators are proposing new rules to increase pipeline safety nationwide.

Current regulations require pipelines in densely populated areas to undergo stringent safety inspections, and regulators would like to extend those protections to suburban and less populated areas. However, experts say there are limits on what these new rules can do.

Stacey Gerard, a consultant and former safety chief for the federal agency overseeing pipelines, says any new rule must pass a cost-benefit analysis. If the projected costs of imposing the rule outweigh the benefits, the government can’t pass it—even if those benefits include avoiding property damage, injuries and deaths.

“There’s no waving a magic wand,” Gerard says. “We’re not going to get all the improvements we’d like. There are actions the agency would like to make that, if they can’t come out with a positive analysis, it won’t make it into the rule.”

Complicating matters is the fact that most pipelines were built in places that once were rural but are now seeing increased development. According to Gerard, more than 12,000 schools in the U.S. are located within 1,000 feet of a major natural gas transmission line.

One bright spot for safety advocates: Gerard says that overall, pipelines have gotten much safer in recent years.

Reporting by Reid Frazier