Travis Knuckles, assistant professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health, received a $450,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to research how airborne particles common to hydraulic fracturing sites affect cardiovascular health.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is the step in the oil and gas extraction process where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected into the wellbore casing under pressure to create pathways for the oil and gas to be released from rock.
Particulate matter is very fine – less than 2.5 micrometers, or smaller than talcum powder particles – and has been shown to cause cardiovascular disease and worsen the symptoms of the disease. Particulate matter can interfere with how the body controls blood flow into the capillaries and turns oxygen into ATP, the main energy source for cells.
“We have a pretty good idea of what particulate matter does in general,” said Knuckles. “The issue is that we have not looked at particulate matter from these gas wells as a toxicant unto itself. How is that emission different from a typical emission near a roadway? Is it more toxic than ambient particles in a broad sense?”
The study will compare particles from fracking sites to those normally found in urban air, as well as identifying the role of wind in decreasing particulate toxicity.
The project team will also look at molecular-level changes that fracking-related emissions may trigger, as well as looking at vascular-level toxicology.
The research could provide a stepping stone for further epidemiological studies. “What is the effect on physiology, and is that fact correlated pretty well in human data that come from these areas?” Knuckles asked. “I think we need science to inform policy in this case.”