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Mounting Evidence that EPA Must Curb Toxic Air Pollution from Fracking Sites

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Posted May 13, 2014 in Health and the Environment

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Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and other extraction technologies, can increase harmful air pollution. Also, by opening up new areas to oil and gas drilling, expansion of this industry is bringing harmful contaminants to backyards, communities, and cities.  These contaminants, which include benzene, formaldehyde, and naphthalene among others, have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer.  

That’s why, today, NRDC is joining over 60 other environmental, public health, and community groups in petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step up and implement existing laws to limit pollution that threatens the health of communities across the country.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry has, largely, been getting an undeserved free-pass from regulations that are supposed to limit air pollution from industrial activity.  At the federal level, EPA’s current standards for controlling emissions from larger oil and gas facilities are weak and it has, so far, ignored the threats posed by high concentrations of smaller facilities.  State regulations are patchy or non-existent--failing to fill in the gaps and provide sufficient protection from unhealthy levels of air pollutants.  Yet, at the same time, mounting evidence from multiple studies points to health threats from air contaminants in the vicinity of oil and gas wells, particularly tied to fracking.

Just since January, six peer-reviewed publications have highlighted public health threats from toxic air contaminants coming from oil and gas development.  Here’s a quick recap of this most recent and troubling evidence:

  • Health Threats: In a comprehensive review of the literature, Adgate et al. (2014) identified  eight different components of unconventional gas development, including the drilling process, wastewater, and condensate tanks, where toxic air contaminants can be released to the air. After summarizing the collective evidence provided by these studies the authors conclude: “there is legitimate concern that local air pollution may produce adverse effects in individuals who live near the high emitting site or processes.”  Adverse effects highlighted in this paper include, increased risk of respiratory, neurological and reproductive effects.
  • Air Pollution Risk: Shonkoff et al. (2014) similarly reviewed studies on health threats from shale and tight gas development and concluded that “a number of studies suggest that shale gas development contributed to levels of ambient air concentrations known to be associated with increased risk of morbidity and mortality.”
  • Benzene Levels:  An air pollution monitoring study conducted in rural Utah found levels of the carcinogen benzene that far exceed levels measured in major urban areas and also health benchmarks set by the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to protect against harm to the immune system.
  • Air Pollution Emissions:  A group of researchers from around the country reviewed air pollution impacts associated with each step in the natural gas lifecycle and the status of federal and state regulation, from development through use.  This paper identified multiple stages where toxic air emissions, could impact air quality and jeopardize public health, including volatilization from wastewater pits, venting and flaring during well completion, dehydrator venting, leaks from pumps, devices or well casing, condensate storage tanks, and other maintenance and production activities at well sites.  The authors identified a number of data and regulatory gaps that contribute to air pollution impacts.
  • Underestimated Impacts:  Just this past week, the Petrón et al. (2014) study, provided further evidence that current estimates of air pollution impacts from oil and gas facilities are significantly underestimating the health risks posed by air toxics, particularly the carcinogen benzene.  The researchers found that current inventories estimating benzene emissions in Weld County, CO underestimated emissions by 7 times and the difference could be as great as 9 times.  The researchers conclude that other toxic air contaminants could similarly be underestimated and that oil and gas sites could be a bigger source of benzene than vehicle emissions, previously thought to be the largest source in the area.  The researchers estimate an average emission rate of 173 kg/hr of benzene, which corresponds to yearly emissions of nearly 1,700 tons for this county alone, which has a population of close to 264,000 people.
  • Cardiac Birth defects: In a troubling evaluation of birth defects in areas with high concentrations of oil and gas activity in Colorado, researchers found that babies whose mothers lived in close proximity to multiple oil and gas wells were 30% more likely to be born with defects in their heart than babies born to mothers who did not live close to oil and gas wells.  Although this type of study does not tell you what could have caused this worrisome pattern, the authors identified a number of other studies which found links between air pollutants, including benzene, to these types of health impacts.

Each of these studies also highlights the huge gaps in data we have about the risks fracking is posing to human health, including accurate measures of air toxic emissions from oil and gas development sites and comprehensive monitoring of levels of air pollutants in nearby communities.  This hinders the ability of medical professionals to evaluate the health complaints of people living near fracking operations. And frustrates local residents, many of whom have reported health complaints such as respiratory and neurological problems consistent with exposures to toxic air contaminants measured in the air near oil and gas sites. 

At the federal level, the lack of consistent reporting and monitoring requirements also means there is no national database that provides location information for oil and gas wells in the country.  This means that figuring out how many people live in the areas where EPA is supposed to require extra scrutiny (census designated areas:  metropolitan statistical areas and combined statistical areas with a population greater than 1 million) required using a map generated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) based on data from 2004-2006. Even using this outdated information, the population living in these areas is huge – over 150 million Americans living in population centers where existing law requires EPA better control air emissions from oil and gas facilities. 

EPA must not continue to turn a blind eye to the pollution spewing from these facilities.  Technologies to control pollution are widely available yet this industry has a terrible track record and fails to protect local communities.  Without action from EPA, communities across the country will continue to bear the brunt of this expanding industry.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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