How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat

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Monday, September 26, 2022

In the northern United States, weatherizing programs have historically focused on the colder months of the year, and the word itself likely conjures thoughts of long and frigid winters. But warming temperatures from climate change mean the concept increasingly pertains to the other end of the calendar too: the summer months, which are getting hotter and putting more people at risk of potentially deadly heat-related illnesses. With even New England cities like Boston expected to see as many as 42 days a year when temperatures crest 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, it and others around the world are developing new approaches and adapting old ones to help people cope. The need is great. Extreme heat kills more people each year than any other type of weather-related event. Last year when the Biden administration launched a federal plan to address the problem, White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy called extreme heat a “silent killer.” Statistics show that annual heat-related deaths in the United States surpass mortalities from tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, and cold winter weather combined, though the problem gets much less attention. Those risks can be amplified in “heat islands” — urban areas where temperatures can be 10 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in other parts of the same city. Disasters of our own design, they occur in places with few shade-supplying trees and a lot of buildings and pavement. Climate change is making heat islands worse. And it’s a problem that extends well beyond Boston and the Northeast. “Urban heat islands are a phenomenon that we’re seeing occurring pretty much in every city across the globe,” says to Yusuf Jameel, research manager at Project Drawdown, an international organization working on solutions to climate change. The Danger Heat waves — and the concentrated effects of heat islands — pose grave health risks like dehydration, mental stress and even death. Last summer about 800 people died in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia when a heatwave hit the Pacific Northwest. Experts say the true death rate associated with heat emergencies may in fact be even higher than reported, since exposure to heat extremes can precipitate medical emergencies in people with conditions including diabetes and heart, respiratory and kidney ailments. These health events aren’t always included in official statistics of heat-induced emergencies. The very young and very old, pregnant women, and people who spend a lot of time in the heat — such as people who work outdoors, the unhoused, and people who can’t afford to cool their homes — also face higher risks than people who spend all their time in air-conditioned homes, offices and cars whenever temperatures spike. “We have to take little breaks to get out of the sun,” says a building custodian in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood — one of the hottest places in the city — who asked to remain anonymous. “I get dizzy,” she adds. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to vomit,” due to exposure to too much heat. Some medications can also increase heat sensitivity, and extreme heat can amplify drug side effects. Exposure to heat can also diminish cognitive function, even in healthy young adults, according to researchers, which could cause life-long consequences by limiting academic and professional achievement and earnings potential. It’s also an environmental justice issue. Rowhouses are hit by direct afternoon sunlight in East Baltimore. Photo: Will Parson/ Chesapeake Bay Program A growing body of research shows worldwide urban heat islands are predominantly located in low-income neighborhoods. In the United States, those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly home to people of color and immigrants. Compounding matters, these same low-income areas tend to have higher percentages of people with medical conditions that make them particularly susceptible to heat-related illness. Research has also linked heat islands to the country’s history of discriminatory lending practices and a past federal housing policy known as “redlining,” which led to much less public and private investment and access to home loans in many communities of color over the last century. While redlining was outlawed in 1968, the past policies, experts say, continue have negative consequences in these communities today. In the past few years, scientists have published multiple studies documenting the heat islands that exist today in formerly redlined areas of more than 100 U.S. cities, even while adjacent neighborhoods remain much cooler. A Global Issue It’s not just communities in the United States that are feeling the heat — or the inequity. Poorer countries, says Jameel, have huge challenges for people living in heat islands, particularly those who work outdoors. “The stakes are very, very high,” he says. For example, heat waves in India and Pakistan earlier this year saw temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit and claimed at least 90 lives. “People were unable to work. There was a higher incidence of people being hospitalized. Kids were unable to go to school.” He also notes that children going to school in consistently hot indoor spaces can end up with both health problems and long-term economic impacts if the heat impairs their ability to learn and function. A Singapore street with air conditioning units. Photo: Schezar (CC BY 2.0) As heatwaves become more severe and more frequent with climate warming, the economic toll can be high, as well. “Right now, it’s happening maybe two weeks a year, where the temperatures are so high that people are unable to work outside,” he says. “But in five to 10 years, if it becomes a month [per year], that will affect the economic growth of the country.” Those days, however, may already be here. In Delhi, the heatwave this spring resulted in nearly 100 days with temperatures breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why climate change — and the associated heat risks — are “fundamentally an issue of justice and equality,” he says. “Children born in sub-Saharan African countries in 2020 are projected to experience six times more extreme climate events compared to those born in the 1960s.” The countries that will be hardest hit by climate change are also among those that have contributed least to the problem. Finding Solutions Work has begun in some places to tackle the heat. Ahmedabad, India has been leading this work in South Asia, with the first Heat Action Plan established in 2013. It includes a citywide Cool Roof program that uses light-colored roofing materials or paints to reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them. Retrofitting solutions are good. But longer term, Jameel says, cities need to prioritize green space, not just more buildings. Such urban-planning solutions are challenging in developing countries, he says, where new urban neighborhoods often spring up spontaneously, without formal planning. Nevertheless, the Global South has one advantage over the North: long experience with the heat. One place to look for solutions, Jameel says, is local knowledge passed down for generations. For example, traditional building designs strategically placed windows to allow indoor heat to escape outdoors and encourage cross ventilation. But while these types of traditional building designs may continue to get built one at a time, Jameel said such projects are not being built “at scale” by real estate developers, who could have a greater impact. He and other experts say much more needs to be done to raise general awareness about heat and health, help vulnerable residents, and spark building-code changes to address the leading cause of weather-related deaths. The U.S. Response In the United States, the federal government and some cities have begun to act, too. In Boston’s Heat Resilience Solutions Plan, 90% of respondents to the city’s online survey said it’s too hot in their homes during very hot summer days. The plan, published in April after more than a year of citywide public consultations, also found that 42% of Black and 36% of Latino residents reported that it was “always” too hot at home, compared to 24% of white residents. In response to these risks, government authorities are adapting programs originally created to help low-income residents keep the heat on during the winter months. The Mayor’s Office on Housing is considering providing “income-qualified residents” not just with air-conditioning units, but with summer utility bill subsidies, too — similar to what’s already available to help heat homes in the winter. That proposal is an acknowledgment that paying the higher monthly bills for running those ACs has become a bigger barrier to household cooling than just acquiring an air conditioner. Boston is not alone. After deadly heat waves last year in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon passed new legislation that will direct $5 million toward purchasing air-conditioning units for vulnerable residents. At the national level, the Department of Health and Human Services this spring announced plans to send states an infusion of $385 million in new funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. A portion of the funds were to cover utility payments, “including summer cooling” for households that need help catching up on unpaid bills. Berkeley Lab’s Heat Island Group has converted a portion of a new temporary parking lot into a cool pavement exhibit. Photo: Berkeley Lab (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) City, state and federal governments are also starting to roll out new weatherizing assistance and interest-free home-improvement loan programs to help residents pay for adding or upgrading air conditioning. A Comprehensive Approach More air conditioning, however, is hardly a long-term solution, since the exhaust from indoor climate control heats up the air outside and the electricity needed to run them fuels more climate change. Experts say we need to redesign our homes, offices and entire cities, a costly undertaking that is still in its incipient stages even in the resource-rich Global North. Some of that work is underway. Many U.S. cities, such as New York, Chicago, Portland and Los Angeles, are adding “cool roof” or “green roof” programs to bring down indoor temperatures and decrease air-conditioning costs by using reflective roofing materials or planting vegetation on roofs. Some cities are going even further. In 2018 Washington, D.C., passed tougher new standards to increase building energy performance in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption by 50% by 2032. Meanwhile Boston is spending $20 million on a retrofit pilot that focuses on providing owners of multifamily buildings with affordable help to upgrade their cooling and heating systems. The program is expected to fund “deep energy retrofits” designed to improve efficiency for about 300 “housing units” in public housing buildings or those otherwise deemed “affordable” by the city. The city’s heat plan also calls for the formation of a task force to address the immediate problem, as well as developing “the broader heat relief strategy,” with long-term solutions. Working with nonprofit partners, it’s providing households and small businesses in the city’s low-income areas with help paying for equipment upgrades and retrofits. The plan details 26 strategies it plans to implement, working through community organizations and directly with city residents. The strategies include grant programs to help building owners afford energy efficient heat pumps and cool roofs, as well as planting trees and adding awnings to provide shade at bus stops. Assisted by new data analysis and mapping technology, many cities are homing in on urban heat islands to better understand the history and historic discrimination that has led to dramatically higher temperatures from neighborhood to neighborhood — and to tailor solutions to local realities. King County Metro Transit, in the Seattle area, is using heat-mapping data to guide bus stop design and amenities with consideration to extreme weather — especially in communities most acutely affected by climate change. And Chelsea, Massachusetts, has launched a “Cool Block” project that involves planting trees, repaving dark asphalt streets in lighter gray material, and revamping sidewalks with white concrete, porous pavers and planters. It’s possible to address climate-related health threats and historic wrongs at the same time, says Jeremy Hoffman, the David and Jane Cohn scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, who has lead heat islands studies in several U.S. cities and worked on research studies linking redlining and historic discrimination with the locations of today’s heat islands in cities across the country. “These decisions that were made a century ago by a few people have affected a ton of people in the present day,” he says. “Collectively we still have a long way to go, but if communities and local governments work together, we can make decisions that will have positive impact for the next century or beyond.” Learn more about urban heat islands from “The Climate Divide,” a 9-episode heat islands podcast from Hola Cultura. Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Previously in The Revelator: Closing the Tree Equity Divide The post How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat appeared first on The Revelator.

New solutions are being tested to combat health risks from heat waves, particularly in urban “heat islands.” The post How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat appeared first on The Revelator.

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A healthy wind

Health benefits of using wind energy instead of fossil fuels could quadruple if the most polluting power plants are selected for dialing down, new study finds.

Nearly 10 percent of today’s electricity in the United States comes from wind power. The renewable energy source benefits climate, air quality, and public health by displacing emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants that would otherwise be produced by fossil-fuel-based power plants. A new MIT study finds that the health benefits associated with wind power could more than quadruple if operators prioritized turning down output from the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants when energy from wind is available. In the study, published today in Science Advances, researchers analyzed the hourly activity of wind turbines, as well as the reported emissions from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the country, between the years 2011 and 2017. They traced emissions across the country and mapped the pollutants to affected demographic populations. They then calculated the regional air quality and associated health costs to each community. The researchers found that in 2014, wind power that was associated with state-level policies improved air quality overall, resulting in $2 billion in health benefits across the country. However, only roughly 30 percent of these health benefits reached disadvantaged communities. The team further found that if the electricity industry were to reduce the output of the most polluting fossil-fuel-based power plants, rather than the most cost-saving plants, in times of wind-generated power, the overall health benefits could quadruple to $8.4 billion nationwide. However, the results would have a similar demographic breakdown. “We found that prioritizing health is a great way to maximize benefits in a widespread way across the U.S., which is a very positive thing. But it suggests it’s not going to address disparities,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “In order to address air pollution disparities, you can’t just focus on the electricity sector or renewables and count on the overall air pollution benefits addressing these real and persistent racial and ethnic disparities. You’ll need to look at other air pollution sources, as well as the underlying systemic factors that determine where plants are sited and where people live.” Selin’s co-authors are lead author and former MIT graduate student Minghao Qiu PhD ’21, now at Stanford University, and Corwin Zigler at the University of Texas at Austin. Turn-down service In their new study, the team looked for patterns between periods of wind power generation and the activity of fossil-fuel-based power plants, to see how regional electricity markets adjusted the output of power plants in response to influxes of renewable energy. “One of the technical challenges, and the contribution of this work, is trying to identify which are the power plants that respond to this increasing wind power,” Qiu notes. To do so, the researchers compared two historical datasets from the period between 2011 and 2017: an hour-by-hour record of energy output of wind turbines across the country, and a detailed record of emissions measurements from every fossil-fuel-based power plant in the U.S. The datasets covered each of seven major regional electricity markets, each market providing energy to one or multiple states. “California and New York are each their own market, whereas the New England market covers around seven states, and the Midwest covers more,” Qiu explains. “We also cover about 95 percent of all the wind power in the U.S.” In general, they observed that, in times when wind power was available, markets adjusted by essentially scaling back the power output of natural gas and sub-bituminous coal-fired power plants. They noted that the plants that were turned down were likely chosen for cost-saving reasons, as certain plants were less costly to turn down than others. The team then used a sophisticated atmospheric chemistry model to simulate the wind patterns and chemical transport of emissions across the country, and determined where and at what concentrations the emissions generated fine particulates and ozone — two pollutants that are known to damage air quality and human health. Finally, the researchers mapped the general demographic populations across the country, based on U.S. census data, and applied a standard epidemiological approach to calculate a population’s health cost as a result of their pollution exposure. This analysis revealed that, in the year 2014, a general cost-saving approach to displacing fossil-fuel-based energy in times of wind energy resulted in $2 billion in health benefits, or savings, across the country. A smaller share of these benefits went to disadvantaged populations, such as communities of color and low-income communities, though this disparity varied by state. “It’s a more complex story than we initially thought,” Qiu says. “Certain population groups are exposed to a higher level of air pollution, and those would be low-income people and racial minority groups. What we see is, developing wind power could reduce this gap in certain states but further increase it in other states, depending on which fossil-fuel plants are displaced.” Tweaking power The researchers then examined how the pattern of emissions and the associated health benefits would change if they prioritized turning down different fossil-fuel-based plants in times of wind-generated power. They tweaked the emissions data to reflect several alternative scenarios: one in which the most health-damaging, polluting power plants are turned down first; and two other scenarios in which plants producing the most sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide respectively, are first to reduce their output. They found that while each scenario increased health benefits overall, and the first scenario in particular could quadruple health benefits, the original disparity persisted: Communities of color and low-income communities still experienced smaller health benefits than more well-off communities. “We got to the end of the road and said, there’s no way we can address this disparity by being smarter in deciding which plants to displace,” Selin says. Nevertheless, the study can help identify ways to improve the health of the general population, says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Washington. “The detailed information provided by the scenarios in this paper can offer a roadmap to electricity-grid operators and to state air-quality regulators regarding which power plants are highly damaging to human health and also are likely to noticeably reduce emissions if wind-generated electricity increases,” says Marshall, who was not involved in the study. “One of the things that makes me optimistic about this area is, there’s a lot more attention to environmental justice and equity issues,” Selin concludes. “Our role is to figure out the strategies that are most impactful in addressing those challenges.” This work was supported, in part, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and by the National Institutes of Health.

Making an impact with environmental health: Yanelli Nunez, PhD.

How does one discover their life's work in environmental health? The paths are numerous, but Dr. Nunez provides a compelling example.Dr. Nunez’s family migrated to the United States looking for job opportunities and a better life when she was a teenager. The transition from living in a small rural town in southern Mexico to San Diego, California, sparked in her an interest in learning about how our environments shape us and influence our lifestyles and health. In this video, learn how this first-generation college student discovered her passion for environmental health sciences and about her mission to contribute to creating healthy and sustainable communities where everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Yanelli Nunez, Ph.D.; Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Health EnergyYanelli Nunez earned her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from Columbia University in 2020 after graduating with a Bachelor’s in biological sciences from San Diego State University and serving as a public health Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, West Africa. During her graduate studies, Dr. Nunez examined the effects of long-term exposure to air pollution on the aggravation of neurodegenerative diseases. She also worked on studies evaluating co-exposure to multiple environmental pollutants to more comprehensively characterize the totality of environmental stressors and their impact on health. During her graduate training, Dr. Nunez learned about the pronounced racial and social inequities in environmental exposures and the resulting health disparities, which drove her to focus her postdoctoral training on environmental equity. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Nunez completed her postdoctoral training at Columbia University, analyzing air pollution emissions trends to investigate whether improvements in air quality throughout the United States have been equitable across racial and economic groups. Dr. Nunez is currently a scientist in PSE Healthy Energy, working in close collaboration with community-based organizations, policymakers and stakeholders. She is expanding her environmental health research in the areas of climate resilience, energy equity and environmental justice. Dr. Nunez is an avid runner and hiker. She loves the outdoors, trying new food and exploring new cultures. Learn moreFind Dr. Nunez on Twitter @yanelli_nunezExplore her website here.Cutting Edge of ScienceDiscover what exciting research other early-career scientists are up to in our exclusive series in partnership with the Science Communication Network.Learn more here.

How does one discover their life's work in environmental health? The paths are numerous, but Dr. Nunez provides a compelling example.Dr. Nunez’s family migrated to the United States looking for job opportunities and a better life when she was a teenager. The transition from living in a small rural town in southern Mexico to San Diego, California, sparked in her an interest in learning about how our environments shape us and influence our lifestyles and health. In this video, learn how this first-generation college student discovered her passion for environmental health sciences and about her mission to contribute to creating healthy and sustainable communities where everyone has an opportunity to thrive. Yanelli Nunez, Ph.D.; Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Health EnergyYanelli Nunez earned her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from Columbia University in 2020 after graduating with a Bachelor’s in biological sciences from San Diego State University and serving as a public health Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, West Africa. During her graduate studies, Dr. Nunez examined the effects of long-term exposure to air pollution on the aggravation of neurodegenerative diseases. She also worked on studies evaluating co-exposure to multiple environmental pollutants to more comprehensively characterize the totality of environmental stressors and their impact on health. During her graduate training, Dr. Nunez learned about the pronounced racial and social inequities in environmental exposures and the resulting health disparities, which drove her to focus her postdoctoral training on environmental equity. In the summer of 2022, Dr. Nunez completed her postdoctoral training at Columbia University, analyzing air pollution emissions trends to investigate whether improvements in air quality throughout the United States have been equitable across racial and economic groups. Dr. Nunez is currently a scientist in PSE Healthy Energy, working in close collaboration with community-based organizations, policymakers and stakeholders. She is expanding her environmental health research in the areas of climate resilience, energy equity and environmental justice. Dr. Nunez is an avid runner and hiker. She loves the outdoors, trying new food and exploring new cultures. Learn moreFind Dr. Nunez on Twitter @yanelli_nunezExplore her website here.Cutting Edge of ScienceDiscover what exciting research other early-career scientists are up to in our exclusive series in partnership with the Science Communication Network.Learn more here.

Mounting Scientific Evidence Rekindles Fracking Health Concerns

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Almost 20 years after the adoption of hydraulic fracturing began to supercharge US production of oil and gas, there’s growing evidence of a correlation between the industry’s activities and an array of health problems ranging from childhood cancer and the […]

This story was originally published by Yale E360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Almost 20 years after the adoption of hydraulic fracturing began to supercharge US production of oil and gas, there’s growing evidence of a correlation between the industry’s activities and an array of health problems ranging from childhood cancer and the premature death of elderly people to respiratory issues and endocrine disruption. While the oil and gas industry insists its processes are safe, and regulators have set rules designed to prevent the contamination of air and water by “fracking” technology, advocates for stricter limits on the practice, or even an outright ban, point to an increasing number of studies suggesting that fracking poses a threat to public health. “The risks and harms of fracking for public health and the climate are real and growing.” A paper by the Yale School of Public Health this summer showed that children living near Pennsylvania wells that use fracking to harvest natural gas are two to three times more likely to contract a form of childhood leukemia than their peers who live farther away. That followed a Harvard study in January that found elderly people living near or downwind from gas pads have a higher risk of premature death than seniors who don’t live in that proximity. In April, the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which consists of health professionals, scientists, and medical organizations, published its most recent compendium of investigations into risks and harms linked with fracking. Since 2014, the compendium has tallied 2,239 peer-reviewed papers that found evidence of harm, with nearly 1,000 of those papers published since 2018. “The risks and harms of fracking for public health and the climate are real and growing,” said the authors of the compilation. “Despite the continuing challenges of exposure assessments, the results of recent studies confirm and extend the validity of earlier findings.” According to the 577-page document, 79 percent of US natural gas and 65 percent of crude oil is now produced by fracking, with more than 17.6 million people living within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well. The result, says the report, is a public health crisis. US energy companies have been under fire from environmentalists and public health advocates since the mid-2000s, when the US fracking boom got underway. The opposition goes beyond concerns that emissions from natural gas contribute to climate change. Critics say that the cocktails of chemicals injected a mile or more underground to crack open gas-bearing fissures in shale threaten groundwater supplies—including drinking water—and that diesel fumes from trucks and generators on well pads erode air quality. Commonly reported health effects that are increasingly linked to fracking include some cancers, low birth weight, disruptions to the endocrine system, nose bleeds, headaches, nausea, and weight gain. One study found that young children living near gas wells in heavily fracked Pennsylvania counties were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia. Outside the United States, concerns about the safety of fracking have prompted bans in France, Ireland, and Bulgaria and have led other countries or regions to place restrictions on the practice. In late October, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said he will continue a national moratorium on fracking for natural gas, reversing a plan by his predecessor, Liz Truss, to lift the ban in an effort to curb soaring energy prices. The industry says its well bores are built with multiple layers of steel and concrete, ensuring that chemical-laden water can’t escape into groundwater. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pennsylvania-based trade group for the natural gas industry, cites academic and government studies showing no clear evidence that fracking harms public health or contaminates groundwater with chemicals. The coalition also argues that the increasing use of cleaner-burning natural gas, replacing coal and oil, helps to curb climate change by cutting carbon emissions. “Research confirms natural gas is safely and responsibly developed in Pennsylvania,” it said. But the industry’s defenses are rebutted by recent research. In August, the Yale School of Public Health published a study in Environmental Health Perspectives that found children between the ages of two and seven living near gas wells in four heavily fracked counties of southwestern Pennsylvania are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common kind of childhood leukemia, than children who do not live near gas development. A new study found an increased risk of early death among elderly people living near or downwind of fracking operations. The study examined almost 2,500 children statewide. It found that 51 of them lived within 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) of a gas well, and that 14 of those were diagnosed with the disease. Statewide, 405 were found to have the disease. Children whose homes at birth were within that distance of a well were 1.98 times more likely to develop the disease than those without gas wells near their homes, the study found. Children who lived within 2,000 meters of a gas well during the perinatal window—from three months prior to conception until birth—were 2.8 times more likely to contract ALL than those who lived beyond that distance. Long-term survival rates of ALL are high, the study said, but victims may suffer associated illnesses, including developmental and psychological problems. The study suggested that people living near gas wells may be exposed via drinking water to chemicals used in fracking—more formally known as unconventional oil and gas development—or from spills of the millions of gallons of wastewater that is pumped out of wells during the process. “This work adds to mounting evidence of UOGD’s impacts on children’s health, providing additional support for limiting UOGD near residences,” the paper said. “There are enough studies now that show that fracking threatens the health of workers and communities.” The study’s senior author, Nicole Deziel, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, urged companies and regulators to consider increasing the distance between gas wells and homes, given that the young ALL patients were found within a distance that is more than 10 times the 500-foot minimum required by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s time that states revisit setbacks to reflect the new research,” she said. The Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based outside Pittsburgh that advocates for public health in the context of shale-gas impacts, recommends setbacks of at least 0.6 miles between homes and smaller shale gas facilities like wells or compressor stations; 1.25 miles or more for larger gas facilities; and 1.25 miles for schools, nursing homes, or other places that house vulnerable populations. Another study published in January from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found an increased risk of early death among elderly people living near or downwind of UOGD. The study, which examined more than 15 million Medicare beneficiaries living in all major US gas development regions between 2001 and 2015, determined people’s exposure level to fracking-related air pollutants based on whether they were living close to a gas well or downwind from it, and then adjusted for social, environmental, and demographic factors. Published in the journal Nature Energy, the paper found that subjects who lived closest to wells had a 2.5 percent higher mortality risk than those who didn’t live close to wells, and that those who lived close to wells and also downwind had a higher risk of early death than those who lived upwind. “Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,” said Longxiang Li, lead author of the study, in a statement. The Marcellus Shale Coalition challenged the conclusions of both university studies, saying they relied on statistical modeling rather than actual exposure, and it accused them of seeking to discredit the natural gas industry. “As these so-called studies are published, we must see them for what they so-often are: Efforts to advance an anti-natural gas agenda, drive more dollars to already well-funded activist organizations, and of course—serve as internet click-bait,” the coalition said in a statement reacting to the Yale study. Alison Steele, executive director of Environmental Health Project, dismissed the coalition’s attack on the studies. “I don’t think there’s any legitimacy in calling a well-conducted, peer-reviewed study click-bait,” she said. The industry coalition cited earlier studies, including one by Duke University in 2017, which found no evidence of groundwater contamination over three years, and another by Pennsylvania State University in 2018, which reported no deterioration in groundwater chemistry in Bradford County, a heavily fracked area of northeastern Pennsylvania. Despite the industry pushback, argued Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, there’s no longer any doubt that fracking hurts human health. “There are enough studies now that show that fracking threatens the health of workers and communities and threatens the mental and physical health of people who work nearby and children who go to school nearby,” he said. “There’s enough of those associations now between fracking and bad health outcomes that should be informing regulators, politicians, and industry that there needs to be a better way.”

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