Grant Will Explore the Health Consequences of Fracking

Oct. 15, 2015

Elaine Hill, Ph.D., has received a $1.25 million Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) designed to boost researchers at the beginning of their careers.  The grant will enable Hill to study the complex local health, environmental, and economic implications of oil and gas extraction in the U.S.

“I am so grateful that my research will be supported by this award,” said Hill. “With it, I will be able to study a topic that is both timely, relevant, and in desperate need of scientific examination.”

The NIH Director’s Early Independence Award was created to help jumpstart the careers of promising young scientists by allowing them to forego years of traditional post-doctoral training and begin to immediately pursue independent research.  The program is one of four types of High-Risk High-Reward grants the NIH awards each year to a group of scientists engaged in innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research.

“This program has consistently produced research that revolutionized scientific fields by giving investigators the freedom to take risks and explore potentially groundbreaking concepts.” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “We look forward to the remarkable advances in biomedical research the 2015 awardees will make.”

Hill, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, joined the University of Rochester Medical Center faculty in 2014. She received her Ph.D. in Applied Economics from Cornell University earlier that year and her research focuses on the intersection between health, health policy, the environment, and how these factors impact individuals’ contributions to the workforce and the economy.  Her most recent research examined the link between shale gas development, reproductive health, and the subsequent impact on later educational attainment.

The rapid expansion of shale gas development in the U.S. through high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” has raised significant unresolved questions about the potential impacts on public health.  While this drilling technique has been employed for more than a decade, there is a dearth of studies that have attempted to measure the community impacts of this activity. 

Using the new award, Hill will study whether air emissions and water contamination from shale gas development increases the risk of adverse health outcomes for individuals living near these operations. The goal of this research is to broadly understand the trade-offs, such as increased economic activity versus environmental degradation or harm to public health, that policymakers and community members face with respect to energy production, as well as the implications for public health and environmental health policy.