Importance: Asthma is common and can be exacerbated by air pollution and stress. Unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) has community and environmental impacts. In Pennsylvania, UNGD began in 2005, and by 2012, 6253 wells had been drilled. There are no prior studies of UNGD and objective respiratory outcomes.
Objective: To evaluate associations between UNGD and asthma exacerbations.
Design: A nested case-control study comparing patients with asthma with and without exacerbations from 2005 through 2012 treated at the Geisinger Clinic, which provides primary care services to over 400 000 patients in Pennsylvania. Patients with asthma aged 5 to 90 years (n = 35 508) were identified in electronic health records; those with exacerbations were frequency matched on age, sex, and year of event to those without.
Exposures: On the day before each patient's index date (cases, date of event or medication order; controls, contact date), we estimated activity metrics for 4 UNGD phases (pad preparation, drilling, stimulation [hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"], and production) using distance from the patient's home to the well, well characteristics, and the dates and durations of phases.
Main outcomes and measures: We identified and defined asthma exacerbations as mild (new oral corticosteroid medication order), moderate (emergency department encounter), or severe (hospitalization).
Results: We identified 20 749 mild, 1870 moderate, and 4782 severe asthma exacerbations, and frequency matched these to 18 693, 9350, and 14 104 control index dates, respectively. In 3-level adjusted models, there was an association between the highest group of the activity metric for each UNGD phase compared with the lowest group for 11 of 12 UNGD-outcome pairs: odds ratios (ORs) ranged from 1.5 (95% CI, 1.2-1.7) for the association of the pad metric with severe exacerbations to 4.4 (95% CI, 3.8-5.2) for the association of the production metric with mild exacerbations. Six of the 12 UNGD-outcome associations had increasing ORs across quartiles. Our findings were robust to increasing levels of covariate control and in sensitivity analyses that included evaluation of some possible sources of unmeasured confounding.
Conclusions and relevance: Residential UNGD activity metrics were statistically associated with increased risk of mild, moderate, and severe asthma exacerbations. Whether these associations are causal awaits further investigation, including more detailed exposure assessment.