Almost a year after the state health commissioner began an investigation into the safety of fracking, its future in New York remains unclear. Last month, public opposition hit a new high. But fracking proponents dangle job growth and economic gains next to unemployment numbers and anemic local revenues. On the other side, opponents point to pipeline explosions, stray gas contamination, potential spills, and improper disposal of waste.
But there’s a less obvious risk. Fracking doesn't only impact health when mistakes are made. It also impacts health when everything goes right, the population explodes, and a town is drastically changed.
We've known about the boomtown health effect since the coal mining boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s the idea: When mostly male newcomers flood a small town, they overwhelm community services. After all, the new population isn't met with more doctors, police officers, or teachers. Housing lags behind demand. This jacks up property taxes and rent, which hit people on a fixed income the hardest. The housing inflation also has a tendency to push out teachers, which rattles stable schools and makes boom work more attractive to struggling students than a diploma. There’s often a spike in crime rates, dropouts, alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health problems.
In 1974, psychologist ElDean Kohrs called this phenomenon “Gillette Syndrome,” after the Wyoming boomtown. Kohrs compared the rates of divorce, crime, and high school dropouts with two other Wyoming communities. Gillette’s rates were far higher. There was more. The suicide attempt rate rose to 1 in 250. (“Suicide attempts … became the tool to regulate the lack of human concern,” Kohrs wrote.) One out of eight had a problem with alcohol. Many found it difficult to find a family physician. They resorted to previously unheard of three-hour waits in the emergency room. Overworked ERs gained a reputation as “first-aid stations,” as they transported patients to better staffed hospitals.
“These boomtowns are communities that are undergoing as much rapid change as you can think of, short of a catastrophe,” said Jeffrey Jacquet, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at the South Dakota State University. Jacquet has studied the boomtown model in Sublette County, Wyoming, and the Marcellus Shale development, which is found in the Northern Appalachia region of the United States.
According to Jacquet, booms cause a social-psychological disruption. This is especially true for older, long-term residents. One way to think about this disruption is through what sociologists call “density of acquaintanceship.” This measures the degree to which people in a community know each other. Here’s one example. If you go to the grocery store or a restaurant, how many people will you recognize? If you live in a small town, that number, or density, might be pretty high. If that density suddenly plummets, because of waves of new people, this can be jarring. Where a person lives shapes who a person is. But the rapid growth of a boom changes what type of place a town is, a person’s role in it, and their social circle.
This gives us a broad sense of the boomtown health effect. But what are the health outcomes at the individual level?
A recent paper by University of Pittsburgh researchers brings the camera in close to show how the fracking boom impacts health. Kyle Ferrar and colleagues interviewed community members who live near the Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania. They spoke with these community members three times. This is because they wanted to know if their symptoms got worse (spoiler: They did). In this study, they did not trace back the steps in the exposure pathway to figure out what caused people’s symptoms. They simply wanted to sketch out the self-reported health of this boomtown.
The results are alarming. Community members reported 59 health impacts and 13 stressors from the Marcellus Shale development. They complained of rashes and sores, headaches and changes in vision, diarrhea and nausea, shortness of breath, and loss of sleep.
Their in-depth interviews produced vivid accounts of life in a boomtown. “They came in and set up flare stacks and were flaring wells consistently for at least a two week period, of which we slept none probably for those two weeks,” one man told the researchers, “Because of both the noise and the light, it was like living inside a football stadium.”