Community-Driven Study Finds Unsafe Air Pollution Levels near Oil and Gas Facilities

, , Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy | October 30, 2014, 4:13 pm EDT
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Ever think that your rural backyard could face air pollution levels in excess of 100 times EPA health standards?  Jeff and Rhonda Locker of Wyoming didn’t think so either. But a new peer-reviewed study out in Environmental Health today suggests that such spikes in air pollution in your backyard are possible if you live next to an oil and gas facility.

Community exposure to chemicals

Citizens living near oil and gas facilities were trained to collect air samples, which were analyzed for volatile compounds. Photo: © Denny Larson

Citizens living near oil and gas facilities were trained to collect air samples, which were analyzed for volatile compounds. Photo: © Denny Larson

The study, released today by Coming Clean and Global Community Monitor, analyzed air samples at the fence line of oil and gas facilities in six states (Arkansas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming). Citizens living near the facilities were trained to collect air samples when they observed emitting activities at nearby facilities or when they experienced health changes such as dizziness, headaches, or breathing problems.

When the samples were analyzed, the results were concerning: Living near an oil and gas facility could be exposing you to unsafe levels of some pollutants including formaldehyde, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and hydrogen sulfide.

The study is significant given how little research has been done on air quality around oil and gas facilities. More attention has focused on water quality impacts and the air pollution work that has been published is limited in scope. This study is unique in that it captures multiple U.S. locations, multiple types of facilities (well pad, compressor, waste pond, separator, work-over rig, and discharge canal), and was designed to capture elevated emissions.

This latter point is especially important because prior work has found that emissions from oil and gas facilities can vary widely, with some facilities only having major emission events during a narrow timeframe of activities (e.g. during the venting and flaring of natural gas). By having nearby residents take samples when such emissions appear to be present, we can get a better sense of what those peak emissions might look like and how they might be affecting the health of those living near such facilities.

Shedding light on fracking’s air quality impacts

But why hasn’t there been more research on air pollution at oil and gas facilities? As outlined in a recent UCS report, there are a few reasons for this.  Some researchers have had trouble conducting the research, given limited access to sites, limited knowledge of processes occurring (to pinpoint the step in the process causing particular emissions), and limited data sharing between companies, state agencies, and scientists.

Like all scientific studies, this research has limitations. It’s worth noting that this study is likely to capture worse cases of exposure because of when observations were taken and assuming some self-selection of participants. However, the fact that citizens are in fact experiencing these unsafe levels of pollutants at their place of residence, even if intermittently, is concerning for their health and does raise questions about the kind of exposures that aren’t being captured by state-run monitoring programs. As the study notes “state regulators’ studies are incomplete.”

Improving air pollution monitoring and protecting public health

This new research shows that we clearly need more research to inform air pollution management at oil and gas sites. We need better information about emissions—their frequency, severity, and the timeframes in which they occur. How widespread are the harmful levels of pollutants found in this study? Are workers adequately protected from these emissions?  Are there long-term health effects associated with living near oil and gas facilities? This research raises more research questions that need answering.

Two recommendations in the report echo those that UCS advocates:

  • Better monitoring. We need baseline and ongoing monitoring programs to detect changes in air quality from oil and gas development. This can help us better manage emissions and their impact on public health because we would better understand when and how emissions occur. The monitoring results of this study demonstrate the urgent need for this.
  • Full chemical disclosure. As the report notes, “regulators, public health officials, workers and citizens cannot properly safeguard public health if they are kept in the dark about chemicals in their communities.” Public safety should be prioritized over proprietary business information.

The results of this new study should help catalyze these changes.

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  • Richard Solomon

    I have written my two Senators and one Rep in the House about the need for full chemical disclosure before. Other UCS members who are concerned about this should do likewise. If/when they hear from more voters, they might be moved to take more active steps in Congress about safeguarding their constituents in regards to this particular issue.

    Perhaps UCS can sponsor such a campaign in January when the next Congress convenes?

  • Denny

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments in support of families yearning to breathe free!