A community-based evaluation of proximity to unconventional oil and gas wells, drinking water contaminants, and health symptoms in Ohio

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Abstract

Over 4 million Americans live within 1.6 km of an unconventional oil and gas (UO&G) well, potentially placing them in the path of toxic releases. We evaluated relationships between residential proximity to UO&G wells and (1) water contamination and (2) health symptoms in an exploratory study. We analyzed drinking water samples from 66 Ohio households for 13 UO&G-related volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (e.g., benzene, disinfection byproducts [DBPs]), gasoline-range organics (GRO), and diesel-range organics. We interviewed participants about health symptoms and calculated metrics capturing proximity to UO&G wells. Based on multivariable logistic regression, odds of detection of bromoform and dibromochloromethane in surface water decreased significantly as distance to nearest UO&G well increased (odds ratios [OR]: 0.28–0.29 per km). Similarly, distance to nearest well was significantly negatively correlated with concentrations of GRO and toluene in ground water (rSpearman: −0.40 to −0.44) and with concentrations of bromoform and dibromochloromethane in surface water (rSpearman: −0.48 to −0.50). In our study population, those with higher inverse-distance-squared-weighted UO&G well counts within 5 km around the home were more likely to report experiencing general health symptoms (e.g. stress, fatigue) (OR: 1.52, 95%CI: 1.02–2.26). This exploratory study, though limited by small sample size and self-reported health symptoms, suggests that those in closer proximity to multiple UO&G wells may be more likely to experience environmental health impacts. Further, presence of brominated DBPs (linked to UO&G wastewater) raises the question of whether UO&G activities are impacting drinking water sources in the region. The findings from this study support expanded studies to advance knowledge of the potential for water quality and human health impacts; such studies could include a greater number of sampling sites, more detailed chemical analyses to examine source attribution, and objective health assessments.

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