"Fracking”—short for hydraulic fracturing and hydrofracking—has become one of the buzzwords of the 21st century.
Now, with funding support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) are studying the effects of unconventional natural gas drilling, commonly known as fracking, on air quality in rural Appalachian areas of Ohio.
A $47,910 grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) was awarded to UC’s Center for Environmental Genetics (CEG), housed in the UC Department of Environmental Health. Shuk-Mei Ho, PhD, Jacob G. Schmidlapp Chair of Environmental Health, is the CEG’s principal investigator.
Erin Haynes, DrPH, an assistant professor in the environmental health department and director of the CEG’s Community Outreach and Engagement Core, will lead the one-year study in collaboration with researchers from Oregon State University, which along with UC is one of 20 NIEHS Core Centers.
Fracking is simple enough to define: It’s an unconventional natural gas drilling method, also known as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, which typically involves the injection of pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into drilled wells to bring up natural gas from deep shale formations. The process has raised a number of environmental concerns, including air quality.
To address those concerns, researchers from UC will place passive air sampling devices near shale gas pads to capture chemical readings for many of the air pollutants often associated with the drilling, hydraulic fracturing, completion and ongoing production of shale gas wells. Researchers at Oregon State, with funding from a separate award, will conduct all analyses with state-of-the-art sampling devices.
UC and Oregon State will share responsibilities for publication and presentation of the study’s findings.
"As Ohio’s shale gas boom continues, thousands of new pads will be installed—many of which will be in close proximity to homes and businesses,” Haynes says. "Understanding if significant air quality changes occur during the various shale gas operations is important to understanding health risks for humans and livestock.”
The study will be conducted at five gas drilling sites in Carroll County and other areas in eastern Ohio where there is gas drilling activity. Researchers will be able to conduct baseline air sampling at sites where drilling will be permitted but has not yet begun, then follow through with continued sampling once drilling begins.
The study will characterize over 1,000 different chemicals, focusing on air volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases that include a variety of chemicals that may have the potential to impact health, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.
A few study participants will be asked to use a personal mobile exposure device (MED), worn as a wristband, which measures VOCs correlated with location via an android cellphone and lung function via a portable spirometer. The design and utility of the MED will be evaluated as part of the study through focus groups and other community feedback.
"By emphasizing community participation we’ll be bringing cutting-edge science directly to the public, bridging the gap between scientists and their communities,” Haynes says, adding that the project is community driven by residents who have expressed concern about gas drilling and want to know if it poses adverse health risks.
Haynes says the study "addresses a critical and emerging environmental health need for our nation, and, in particular, disadvantaged Ohio residents.” The 2013 Ohio Poverty Report showed that 16.7 percent of the 32-county Appalachian Ohio area was below the poverty level; the rate for the rest of Ohio was 14.3 percent.
Haynes will provide details about the study and specific criteria for landowners interested in participating at a meeting of Carroll Concerned Citizens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, at the Carrollton Church of Christ Christian, 353 Moody Ave. SW, Carrollton. The meeting is free and open to the public.