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.