Study suggests potential link between fracking industry and increased sexually transmitted infections

Activists have long condemned natural gas drillers in Ohio over environmental concerns, but a recent study links the fracking industry to a different kind of health concern: sexually transmitted infections.

Researchers at the Yale Public School of Health found about a 20 percent increase in two STIs — gonorrhea and chlamydia — in eastern Ohio counties with high shale development activity, such as Belmont.

Experienced, out-of-state workers in the industry are often brought into rural communities for their specialized skills, such as operating drilling rigs, said the study’s lead author Nicole Deziel, an epidemiologist at Yale. Those workers tend to be transient young men, she said, living in hyper-masculine “work camp” environments without families — all factors that allow for casual relationships and sexual encounters.

Deziel, an assistant professor in the Yale Public School of Health, was inspired to investigate the potential impact of migrant workers on local communities after visiting Belmont County in 2016 and noticing rows of camper vans that workers were living in while working there.

Her team examined new well permits and reported STI cases using publicly available data sets from all 88 counties in the state from 2000 to 2016 to monitor the influx of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis to account for any pre-existing trends in STI rates. Prior to 2010, there was no hydraulic fracturing activity in Ohio. Since fracking was introduced, about nine counties in eastern Appalachian Ohio with high Utica shale development activity — 10 or more new well permits a year — saw a 21 percent increase in gonorrhea and 19 percent jump in chlamydia rates.

Syphilis rates were unaffected, presumably because workers in those areas were engaging in heterosexual intercourse, whereas syphilis is more associated with homosexual intercourse, Deziel said.

This is not a new phenomenon or unique to just Ohio, Deziel emphasized, citing other studies linking transient workers and STI increases, such as mining communities in South Africa and even crisis cleanup workers in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the shale gas industry directly, but to do with population growth,” said Dr. Charlotte Gaydos, an STI expert at Johns Hopkins University. “It makes sense anytime there’s an activity in the area which increases the influx of the migration of a population that it might be associated. It has been studied a lot.”

The shale fracking industry has expanded rapidly in Ohio over the past eight years. Although there has been a decrease in new permits in recent years, STI rates continue to climb because once a disease is introduced, Deziel said, it can be exchanged within the communities even after the workers leave.

The study notes that the link between fracking and STIs needs to be studied in other regions and by other researchers before it could be considered conclusive.

Some worry that the study makes unfair assumptions about the working population in the natural gas industry.

Although out-of-state workers might have filled many of the early fracking jobs in Ohio, more Ohioans are being hired and trained for those jobs, said Jackie Stewart, state director of Energy In Depth, a research and education organization financed by the oil and gas industry.

“There are no conclusions from this study: only potential and possible links,” Stewart said.

She added that chlamydia was on the rise in Ohio prior to 2010, before fracking began in the state, and the Ohio county with the highest rate of gonorrhea and chlamydia in 2016 was Hamilton — where there are no shale wells.

“It’s a bit dubious,” Stewart said. “They fail to explain the rise in cases of STIs in the decade prior to shale development, but go to great lengths to highlight an increase in the years since.”

The Ohio Department of Health recommends using a condom and getting tested regularly to avoid sexually transmitted infections or diseases. The department’s STD Prevention Program provides screenings for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 23, 2018.

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The Ridges serve as ‘creepy’ housing for visiting students and new faculty

Lari-Valtteri Suhonen, a visiting doctoral student from Sweden studying psycholinguistics, lives in an apartment at the Ridges. (Photo by Blake Nissen)

The Ridges is notorious for being one of the most haunted spots in Athens, but that doesn’t stop some Ohio University staff and students from living there.

The abandoned psychiatric hospital, formerly known as the Athens Mental Health Center, is just yards away from four cottages. Those residential areas used to be housing for staff members of the mental institution but now provide homes for visiting students and faculty as well as newly hired staff members.

One of those residents is Lari-Valtteri Suhonen, a visiting doctoral student from Sweden studying psycholinguistics. When he moved into the apartment two weeks ago, he was unaware of the history of his new home that he will be living in for the next two months.

“It was something the university told me one night,” Suhonen said. “I quite quickly noticed what’s going on here. I’ve done some research and found it was a mental asylum before. I know this house where I live in used to be staff housing for the mental hospital.”

Jneanne Hacker, the director for Business Operations and Conference Services, said the university owns the property and only leases it out to university affiliates. Living in those residential units has many benefits, she said.

“It is a convenience factor,” Hacker said. “It’s within walking distance of campus. … If people aren’t familiar with the real estate and the market in Athens, they’re able to secure housing as they’re transitioning and moving into that position, especially if they’re on a short timeline.”

The houses are leased for one year with the possibility of a one-year extension to be considerate of other staff members, Hacker said.

Bernhard Debatin, a journalism professor, utilized the two-year maximum and lived in the cottage from 2000 to 2002. He was a visiting professor from Germany at the time before accepting a permanent position at OU. Debatin has not experienced anything supernatural, but said other people considered his living arrangement to be spooky.

“Our first son was a year old,” Debatin said. “We had a babysitter from Ohio University. When she would babysit and we weren’t there, she was a little scared. She would go all around the house and pull down the shades and make sure the house was locked. She found it weird, I assume mostly because of the reputation The Ridges have.”

Although Debatin does not believe in ghosts, he did find some of his surroundings a bit unsettling.

“There were a number of things I found strange, like the two graveyards,” he said. “Both of them have these numbered tombstones, so people who got buried there don’t have their names there. These were patients from the institution. They were numbers when they were patients and when they died they were still numbers. … That was a little bit on the creepy side.”

The haunted reputation of the area appeals to many OU students. Debatin was aware of people entering the buildings to witness sights such as the alleged stain of a corpse.

“Around Halloween, there were always students,” Debatin said. “People need to be careful. … You can fall through some floors. … There are some structures on The Ridges that are really old and broken. Just because you find a way in, doesn’t mean you’re competent to explore.”

That continues to be a trend even now, Suhonen said.

“There’s a lot of people going up and down the hill,” he said. “I see party groups in the evening.”

The buildings may not remain dilapidated forever. Shawna Bolin, a co-chair of The Ridges Master PlanCommittee, said the university is working on ways to renovate the area. One of the proposals is to create an ecovillage housing complex and other residential spaces.

“We do envision the opportunity at The Ridges to meet the housing needs for this area,” Bolin said. “We will be open to ideas to rehabilitate the buildings to whatever they may be, including residential.”

Suhonen is thrilled to hear about The Ridges Master Plan, even though he will not be in Athens long enough to witness the completed project.

“It’s sad a lot of the buildings are not being used,” he said. “It’s kind of weird that such a place exists so close to the city center. … The university would do really well if they actually put some apartments out here. It would be a beautiful place.”

The reputation of The Ridges will most likely continue even after the area is revamped, and that may provide unconventional living opportunities.

“It would be cool to say you’d be living near a mental hospital,” Suhonen said. “Maybe some students would feel uncomfortable by that because of the history, but it would definitely be cool for some people.”

@AbbeyMarshall

am877915@ohio.edu

Originally published for The Post on October 24, 2016. To appear in print on October 27, 2016

OPINION: Barbie’s dress won’t fit

Abbey Marshall | Staff Writer

Abbey columnist pic (1)

 

Mattel recently unveiled three new body types of the most iconic doll in American pop culture.

For 57 years, little girls sat cross-legged in the middle of their living room, strategically changing their Barbie’s dress, revelling at her thin feminine figure and perfect blonde hair, only hoping one day they could look like her. Then puberty hit, and every teenager came to resent Barbie and her unrealistic body image and the immense amount of pressure she put on young girls.

Barbie has been criticized in the media as of late by everyone from feminist bloggers to medical examiners, dispelling Barbie’s proportions as unrealistic and unhealthy, as they could not be achieved with a healthy lifestyle. Nevertheless, little girls kept their plastic dolls firmly grasped in her small hands, aspiring to be someone pretty and thinner and more beautiful.

Until now. Mattel’s new Barbies are the biggest change in company history, marking the beginning of a new toy line but in addition, a change in societal values. Our society is progressing towards a more accepting view of all lifestyles and ideals: same-sex marriage was legalized last summer, Caitlyn Jenner won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the Espys, and Washington is constantly creating passing new legislation to discourage and outlaw discrimination.

Now, that same acceptance is outstretching to body image as well. American beauty has evolved, just look at Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj. The “perfect” woman isn’t just a long-legged, tan blonde with voluminous locks and sparkling blue eyes and that’s being reflected with by the new line of Barbies.

Introducing: Curvy Barbie. She has wide hips and thicker thighs, but she sports the classic pearly-white Barbie smile on her face. Her hair is blue and her outfits are trendy as she struts in her high heels. Following behind is Petite Barbie; she’s an African-American significantly shorter than Classic Barbie. In toe is Tall Barbie, a lanky, tan girl with shaved sides of her head and a long blonde quiff.

As the average mom saunters the toy aisle at Target, she will be most likely be pleasantly surprised at the dolls that differ from her childhood. The Barbies comes in many different shapes and sizes, hair colors, and skin tones. “The millennial mom is a small part of our consumer base,” Evelyn Mazzocco, head of the Barbie brand, told Time Magazine, “but we recognize she’s the future.”

I’m thoroughly impressed with Mattel’s strides to create a more tolerant generation of young girls. Not only will they be likely to accept themselves and all their flaws and features that make them unique, but they’ll also be less judgemental of others.

They will finally be proud to be a Barbie girl.

Originally published in The Chronicle on February 11, 2016.