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Harvard School of Public Health Research Find Increased Airborne Radiation Near Fracking Sites

{Harvard's School of Public Health is located in Boston's Longwood neighborhood.
{Harvard's School of Public Health is located in Boston's Longwood neighborhood. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Dekyi T. Tsotsong, Contributing Writer

Petros Koutrakis, an environmental sciences professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and his research team published a study last week presenting evidence of increased levels of airborne radiation in areas within 12 miles of United States hydraulic fracturing sites.

The study — published Oct. 13 in Nature — was based on an analysis of radiation network data at 157 sites nationwide and measured how radioactivity corresponds with distance from fracking wells. The sites comprise a network where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitors radiation in the air and water.

Though Koutrakis’s study identified higher radiation levels near fracking sites, it did not trace the exact source and timing of radiation leaks into the surrounding environment.

“Of course, we did the modeling, but just for simplification, we found that as the sites are getting closer to these developments, we have an increase in particle radioactivity,” Koutrakis said.

Koutrakis said that, while those who live near these sites do not face immediate health consequences, they do face an extra risk of certain chronic health outcomes: lung function changes, decreased lung volume, cardiac effects, birth defects, and mortality. The study noted that the sites are often located in low-income areas, potentially worsening health effects for those who live nearby.

Currently, Koutrakis said his team is unsure whether radiation leaks occur during the construction and production of oil, during storage in wastewater lagoons, or when the oil is transferred through pumps.

Because the government does not identify fracking waste as nuclear waste, Koutrakis said, waste material is currently discarded in municipal landfills or used for irrigation. Additionally, fracking companies do not disclose the chemicals they use in extraction, resulting in unknown pollutants making their way into the environment, according to Koutrakis.

James K. Hammitt ’78, an economics professor at the School of Public Health, said that the Koutrakis’s team’s study could be a valuable first step in helping limit people’s exposure to radiation sources.

“By understanding these sources better, maybe we can recommend or develop technologies to control exposures,” Hammitt said.

Koutrakis, the lead author on the study, was joined by fellow authors at the School of Public Health: research fellow Longxiang Li, postdoctoral fellow Annelise J. Blomberg, environmental health professor John D. Spengler, environmental epidemiology professor Joel D. Schwartz, and biostatistics professor Brent A. Coull.

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ResearchSchool of Public HealthEnvironment