Fracking Fumes: Natural Gas Development Worsens Air Quality

Smoggy skies, air quality alerts, burning eyes, headaches, respiratory problems, elevated cancer risk…  Sounds just like Los Angeles or another urban center, right? Not this time.  These air quality problems are being reported in rural America.  What’s going on? An explosion in natural gas drilling is bringing industrial air pollution into people’s backyards. Without strong safeguards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), communities across the country will pay the price with their health.

wellpadhouseNM.PNGNatural gas production releases an alphabet soup of pollutants into the air which are bad news for everyone – the family next door, the neighboring towns, and ultimately, communities all over the world feeling the impacts of climate change.  This is a new and growing industry, but here’s what we know so far:

Local: Air quality testing in the areas around natural gas wells and processing equipment – in Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico - have shown levels of pollutants, such as benzene, xylene,  1,3-butadiene, and other hydrocarbons, that can cause respiratory and neurological impacts and increase the risk of cancer. A recently published study looking at air quality data collected in rural Colorado found that these health risks increased the closer you got to the gas wells. Diesel emissions from heavy machinery and trucks also pollute the air at a local level.

Regional:  Last year was a winter for the record books in rural Wyoming – not because of snow - but because children were forced to stay indoors to avoid LA-like air quality.  The bad air was due to the accumulation of hydrocarbon pollution, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), from the region’s natural gas facilities that interact in the air to form ground-level ozone, commonly referred to as smog.  Ozone is a powerful respiratory irritant and is especially dangerous for people with asthma, particularly children. 

Global:  As if the list wasn’t bad enough already, one of the hydrocarbons emitted from natural gas production, methane, is a powerful global warming pollutant that is fueling climate change. Climate change threatens the health of communities around the world with extreme heat, floods, dangerous air quality and the spread of infectious diseases.

Local, state and national health agencies have expressed concerns about health impacts of air pollution from natural gas facilities including: the Centers’ for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC ) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC)- Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU) and American Academy of Pediatrics, Colorado Health Department,  the Town of Dish, Texas and the City of Fort Worth, Texas.

The evidence is piling up about the dangers of this industry and a major clean-up is way overdue.  Pollution control technologies are available and many actually save the companies money. The children of Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and communities across the country need EPA to get it right and set strong standards to protect their health.

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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