Lots of news (bad) about the health risks from oil and gas production

Over the last few days there has been a lot of news related to the human health impacts of oil and gas production.

In Erie, Colorado (in the Denver area), moms are complaining about family health symptoms that they think are related to nearby oil and gas drilling, including asthma, dizziness, allergies, gastrointestinal distress, and migraine headaches. These moms are very concerned that drilling is now planned near two elementary schools. There are plenty of data from around the country that oil and gas production operations can emit substantial amounts of toxic air pollutants. Yet this was the response of Encana, the company drilling in Erie: "Health claims based on anecdotal data and not sound science can't be substantiated." But dangerous air pollution can be substantiated with air sampling and other testing. Children's health is at stake. Is Encana telling these moms to take a hike? Or will the company support independent testing and monitoring of the air in the community and fully investigate these complaints?

In Pavillion, Wyoming, the U.S. EPA is investigating contamination of a community's drinking water and has released a draft report for public review. The oil and gas company in Pavillion--also Encana--said EPA  is "moving too quickly" and should "start the clock over" for public comment.

Complaints about contaminated air and water related to oil and gas production continue to arise nationwide. I was really pleased to see that a new peer-reviewed research paper entitled "Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health" has been accepted for publication in New Solutions, A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy. The paper is authored by Robert E. Oswald, a biochemist and Professor of Molecular Medicine at Cornell University, and Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian with a master's degree in pharmacology. 

The Bamberger/Oswald paper is not posted on line yet (I will update this post when there is a link), but I have seen an early copy. The authors spent a year documenting cases of animal and owner health problems with potential links to natural gas extraction operations in six states. They interviewed veterinarians and analyzed soil, air, water, and medical test results. Their very detailed paper summarizes the results of their investigation and provides several case studies. The authors are very up front about the challenges they faced in obtaining definitive information on the link between hydrocarbon gas drilling and health effects, but they conclude that: "Documentation of cases in six states strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife." The authors make a number of excellent recommendations to protect human and animal health and food safety. Everyone following this topic should read this article.

To shed more light on the human health risks of oil and gas production, a conference was held earlier this week on "Epidemiologic and Public Health Considerations of Shale Gas Production." Industry derided this conference as a "pep-rally against oil and natural gas development," but here are some of the presenters at the conference: Dr. Vikas Kapil, the Chief Medical Officer of the National Center for Environmental Health, Dr. Jerome Paulson, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health & the Environment, and Dr. Roxana Witter, Assistant Research Professor at the Colorado School of Public Health. I attended this conference, and I can assure you that it was nothing like a pep rally. It was, instead, a very serious gathering of environmental health experts from around the country who discussed the available data--and the need for more data and scientific investigation--regarding human health impacts. Dr. Kapil noted: “We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals.” Dr. Witter noted that the oil and gas industry had refused to cooperate on an air quality study in Colorado, because the study was "focused on interpreting data for its public health implications."

Doctors at the conference discussed the idea of establishing an independent organization, funded by the industry (because it has the money), to conduct medical and scientific research on the health impacts of oil and gas operations. Models include the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, which was funded by $300 million of tobacco industry money, and  the Health Effects Institute, with an $11.5 million budget in 2010, which is half funded by the automotive industry. In Germany, Exxon-Mobil is providing one million euro (about $1.27 million) for an independent scientific study of the risks from shale gas drilling. A neutral facilitator was hired to manage the research, and only researchers without any financial ties to the oil and gas industry are allowed to participate. And as I mentioned recently, Australia has allocated $150 million for a research study.

In the U.S., the oil and gas industry makes fun of our top medical experts and dismisses the concerns of moms worried about the health of their children.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Advocate, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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