Yale faculty receive $2 million grant to study health effects of fracking

With a $2 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Yale researchers will investigate the health effects of unconventional oil and gas production.
Photo of professor Nicole Deziel.
Nicole Deziel

With a new $2 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), researchers from the Yale Schools of Public Health (YSPH), Forestry & Environmental Studies (FES), and Engineering & Applied Science will investigate the health effects of unconventional oil and gas production.

Assistant Professor Nicole Deziel (YSPH) and Professor James Saiers (FES) will direct an interdisciplinary team of scientists who will investigate the impact of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as “fracking,” and related activities on drinking water quality and neonatal health outcomes within the Appalachian Basin.

Thousands of wells have been hydraulically fractured within the Appalachian Basin — an area stretching from Alabama to New York — during the past decade, and the practice is expected to continue for years to come. Hydraulic fracturing is initiated after a gas or oil well has been drilled and involves pumping a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the wellbore under high pressures to fracture the surrounding rock and liberate the trapped oil and gas.  

This research brings together physical scientists, engineers, and population scientists from across the Yale campus to evaluate the likelihood of drinking-water contamination and adverse birth outcomes resulting from these new industrial activities,” said Deziel. “Research from these disciplines has generally been occurring separately, and integration of hydrogeology, chemistry, and epidemiology will provide critical scientific evidence for policymakers, health officials, and other researchers.”

Photo of professor James Saiers
James Saiers

The Appalachian Basin has contributed significantly to the nation’s oil and gas boom. Energy production from the basin’s northern tier has skyrocketed over the last decade as the Marcellus and Utica Shales have been targeted intensively for oil and gas extraction. Advances in drilling and hydraulic fracturing have unlocked these reserves, which has increased domestic supplies and made oil and gas cheaper, but widespread deployment of these extraction technologies have been accompanied by concerns about environmental contamination, social stressors, and health problems that may be felt acutely by lower-income communities. With the grant, the EPA is seeking to promote multidisciplinary research that illuminates the impacts of unconventional oil and gas production, with the ultimate goal of using this research to inform policy decisions and best practices for oil and gas drilling within the Appalachian Basin and elsewhere.

The study will begin in September 2017 and continue for three years. Other researchers involved in the project include Desiree Plata (Engineering), Xiaomei Ma (YSPH), Joshua Warren (YSPH), and Michelle Bell (FES).

By collecting water quality data from hundreds of households, we expect to learn a great deal about the frequency and agents of freshwater contamination within the Appalachian region,” said Saiers. “We will use these data to formulate models that characterize drinking-water vulnerability to pollution and to advance approaches to distinguish contamination caused by fossil-fuel extraction from contamination caused by other activities.”

This project leverages Deziel’s, Saiers’, and Plata’s previous work in the region. Deziel led a team of Yale scientists in conducting the Ohio Water and Air Quality Study last year, which examined the water contamination, air quality, and health among residents in a county in Ohio where fracking occurs. Saiers is nearing completion of a prospective study of groundwater quality changes that occur during gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing in northeastern Pennsylvania. Plata’s research has provided critical insights into the types of fracking-related activities most likely to contaminate water supplies.

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Ziba Kashef: ziba.kashef@yale.edu, 203-436-9317