No one really knows what the health impacts are from living near oil and gas exploration and production sites. Families from California to Pennsylvania, Texas to Wyoming, and in between, report very serious health symptoms that they believe are related to exposure to contaminants in their water, air, or both. In some cases, tests of air and water have identified high levels of toxic substances, and some physicians have ordered families to evacuate their homes.
Yet no government agency has conducted an investigation of these health reports. To the best of my knowledge, no agency is even keeping track of these reports to see if there are any worrisome patterns. A Health Impact Assessment was being conducted for one community in western Colorado, but local government officials terminated the project early, before it was finalized. In the last draft, the authors concluded: "....health of Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents/emergencies resulting from industry operations, and stress-related community changes. To address these potential health impacts, we provide more than 70 specific recommendations."
Importantly, the public health experts who drafted the Health Impact Assessment found that: "At this time, there are no studies that document a "safe" distance between natural gas wells and homes, schools, and other places occupied by community members."
In Pennsylvania, the state's Secretary of Health has recommended that the state create a registry to track illnesses in communities near natural gas production. The Secretary stated: "We're really at the frontiers of this and we can make a speedy example for all the other states." The Health Department has also recommended that it investigate concerns raised by citizens and evaluate environmental data about potential risks.
On the one hand, it is discouraging that Pennsylvania would be the first state to do this. On the other hand, we are very pleased that it is considering this. From the news reports it sounds like it is still tentative, but we hope the state moves forward--and not only in Pennsylvania but in every state where oil and gas is being produced. One of the recommendations in our 2007 report, Drilling Down, was to monitor and track health outcomes in communities and workers exposed to oil and gas production activities. This is still a crucial need.