The evidence documenting the dangers to community health from oil and gas drilling continues to mount. As the shale revolution brings industrial production areas into communities all over the country, more and more people are exposed to increasingly well-documented health risks.
We are approaching a time when there is universal consensus about the health risks of oil and gas drilling.
Yesterday a study was published in the journal Environmental Health that is the first peer-reviewed study of hazardous air pollutants near fracking and other oil and gas production sites in multiple US locations. You can also download the report, which is written in layman’s terms.
This follows the release last week of a study that pinpoints the source of airborne pollutants at oil and gas drilling sites in the Uintah Valley in eastern Utah.
What makes yesterday’s announcement so compelling is that residents of communities heavily affected by oil and gas production were trained to collect samples using equipment and methods certified by federal agencies, which were then analyzed by an accredited independent laboratory. Residents collected air samples when they personally observed activity at the sites or when they suffered symptoms such as headaches, dizziness or breathing problems.
This method of engaging local communities solves the problem of delays between local observation and the engagement of state and federal agencies.
Samples were collected in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Wyoming.
Key findings of the study
- Eight chemicals classified as volatile compounds (VOCs) were found in concentrations in excess of either the US EPA’s most hazardous cancer risk level or the minimal exposure levels for non-cancer risks set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). About 38 percent of the samples contained concentrations of VOCs exceeding these federal standards.
- The chemicals that most often exceeded health and safety standards were formaldehyde, which is a known human carcinogen, and hydrogen sulfide, a nerve and organ toxin known by its rotten egg odor.
- Seven samples, all from Wyoming, contained hydrogen sulfide in concentrations ranging from more than twice to 600 times the level classified by the EPA as immediately dangerous to human life.
- Fourteen samples — seven from Arkansas, six from Pennsylvania and one from Wyoming — contained concentrations of formaldehyde exceeding the EPA’s most hazardous cancer risk level.
- Several other chemicals were detected at concentrations above health and safety standards. Four samples from Wyoming contained benzene, a known carcinogen, in concentrations above EPA’s most hazardous cancer risk level. Seven samples from Wyoming and one from Pennsylvania contained hexane, a nerve toxin, at levels above either ATSDR minimal risk levels or the workplace safety standards for long-term exposure set by OSHA. One Wyoming sample contained hexane at 7000 times OSHA’s minimal risk level. Five Wyoming samples contained levels of the nerve toxins toluene and xylene at levels exceeding either the short-term or long-term minimal risk levels.
If you’re having trouble keeping score about the effects of different chemicals used in oil and gas drilling, the study includes this awesome diagram. Not for the faint of heart. You can click to enlarge.
Conclusions and recommendations
The peer-reviewed data in this study is compelling, and describes the very real dangers to public health from oil and gas drilling. Here are the recommendations:
- States must put in place more robust monitoring protocols and practices. Community monitoring can be a powerful tool for assessing potential risks, and it should inform the action of regulators to better protect public health.
- Companies that produce fossil fuels must fully and publicly disclose the compounds used in fracking and other production activities. Regulators, public health officials, workers and citizens cannot properly safeguard public health if they are kept in the dark about chemicals in their communities. Federal policies that shield corporations from disclosing “confidential business information” should be shifted to support citizens’ right to know. Health care providers should be free to inform patients of the health risks of chemicals used in their communities.
- State and federal agencies must use a precautionary approach when permitting oil and gas development operations. (See recent post on this blog, Oil Drilling and smoking: the precautionary principle)
What it means for the Beartooth Front
For us as citizens, we need to say enough is enough. Montana does not provide the protections communities need. Our water, our environment, our property rights and our health are at risk. We have identified ways for citizens to take action. If you have the opportunity to sign up to participate, do it.
For our elected officials, particularly our County Commissioners, who have a clear responsibility to protect the people who elected them, there is a requirement to be precautionary in dealing with this issue. It is fine to look at potential revenues coming into the community, but it is not fine to risk public health for short-term economic gain. County Commissioners should be proactive in dealing with their communities to make sure rules are put in place that protect public health and safety.