By: Sharon Franklin

July 29, 2018

Stress and depression are higher among those living closest to more and bigger wells.

People who live near unconventional natural gas operations such as fracking are more likely to experience depression, according to a new study, by Joan A. Casey, Holly C. Wilcox, Annemarie G. Hirsch, Jonathan Pollak and  Brian S. Schwartz  “Associations of unconventional natural gas development with depression symptoms and disordered sleep in Pennsylvania” .

Background:  The Study is the first of its kind published in Scientific Reports.  The University of California at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins University Researched reviewed the rates of depression in nearly 5,000 adults living in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region in 2015.

They found that people living near fracking-related operations are more likely to be depressed than the general population, and that stress and depression went up among people living closest to more and bigger natural gas wells. One of the study’s co-authors, Joan Casey stated “Previously we’ve looked at the links between unconventional natural gas development and things like asthma exacerbations, migraine headaches and fatigue. The next step was thinking about mental health, because we had a lot of anecdotal reports of sleep disturbances and psychosocial stress related to unconventional natural gas development.”

At the end of 2015, 9,669 wells had been drilled in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.  By 2016, the region led the nation in shale gas production. There have been other small sample studies on the links between fracking and depression, however, this is the first to investigate a link between the two using a validated survey among a larger population. The researchers in this study compared data on the number of wells, the phase of extraction, and the volume of production in order to group residents into categories of “very low,” “low,” “medium,” and “high” levels of exposure to fracking operations.  To assess the severity of depression symptoms, the researchers utilized a patient health questionnaire that included questions such as, “How often have you been bothered by feeling down, depressed, hopeless?

The Study’s Results:  Dr. Casey noted that the greatest increases in rates of depression occurred among people with mild to moderate symptoms living near high-volume fracking operations.  She states “People in the highest group of exposure were 1.5 times more likely to have mild depression symptoms than those in very low exposure group.

Casey added “Based on our observations, it seems like living near unconventional natural gas development may not cause an increase in diagnoses of severe major depressive disorders but might exacerbate symptoms in those with mild or moderate depression and create some depression and stress in otherwise healthy people.”

The researchers minimized over reporting by not informing the subjects that the study was related to fracking.

While that strengthened the study’s results, Casey pointed out that it also limited their ability to examine the causes of depression in those living near fracking operations.

 “Some people in these communities might have positive associations with natural gas extraction.”

  • “Maybe they’re leasing their land and getting economic benefits, so it’s actually lessening their symptoms,
  • while others may only be getting exposures and have concerns about its health impacts, which could be worsening their symptoms.”

Additionally, the researchers reviewed electronic health records to determine whether there was an increase in physician-diagnosed sleep disorders or prescriptions for sleep aids in the region but did not observe an increase in those instances associated with proximity to fracking operations.

Unanswered questions  ???

The study addressed whether exposure to the chemicals being released into the environment could play a role in the increase of depression symptoms among those living near unconventional natural gas operations.

Casey said “I think we’ve probably now done enough epidemiological studies showing the links between unconventional natural gas extraction and health.”.

  1.  “The next step will be to tease apart what our exposure pathways are.”
  2.  “Is this being caused by air pollution and volatile organic compounds?
  3.  “Is it more about perception and psychosocial stressors than actual exposure?”

 Casey concluded that they don’t know the answers to these questions, and to be able to move forward, they will have to start unraveling those mysteries.

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