More Fracking Fumes: Studies Repeatedly Find Unsafe Levels of Air Pollution Near Fracking Sites

Science is about identifying patterns.  A single study finding unsafe levels of a contaminant raises concern, but when the results of multiple studies start to converge the science is telling us we have a problem. 

Over the past year, at least 10 studies have reported unsafe levels of air pollution associated with fracking sites and oil and gas development.  And while there is a long list of short and long-term health impacts that could stem from this pollution, some initial investigations have already documented respiratory symptoms, neurological problems, and a worrisome pattern of birth defects.

A pattern is what my colleague and I found in our most recent report, Fracking Fumes, where we compiled the available science on air quality threats from fracking sites and, more generally, from oil and gas development.  Our review documents sources of air pollution at every stage of oil and gas development, unsafe levels of pollutants close-by to fracking sites and also in regions with lots of fracking, and a scary list of health impacts that could increase if pollution levels are not controlled.

Our major findings include:

Scientific studies are repeatedly finding air pollution levels high enough to cause short-term symptoms like shortness of breath or dizziness and long-term effects like birth defects, blood disorders, and cancer.

A recently published study, conducted in conjunction with communities, reported the results of air testing near oil and gas production facilities in five states. This testing found levels of volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide that were above safety thresholds established to protect people from respiratory and neurological problems for short duration exposures.  Repeated and chronic exposures at the levels found in this study have been linked to severe harm to the nervous system and lungs, blood disorders, birth defects, and cancer.

Unfortunately, it’s not just this study finding unsafe air quality.

Looking across all of the available studies of air contaminants linked to fracking sites and oil and gas production, there is mounting evidence for increased risks of the following health impacts: respiratory problems, birth defects, blood disorders, cancer, and nervous system impacts.

Studies have also found pollutants linked to other health impacts near fracking operations, including heart problems and harm to the liver, kidney, endocrine, immune, reproductive, gastrointestinal, and auditory systems. More research is needed to better understand the level of risk for these impacts to workers, neighboring families and communities.

Studies show that the health threats from air pollution are not limited to communities with drilling directly in their backyards; regions with high levels of oil and gas activity are paying the price with smoggy skies and respiratory problems.

Since fracking brought an explosion of oil and gas activity, parts of rural Utah, Colorado and Wyoming have developed smog problems more commonly found in urban areas. In Wyoming, a study found that the bad air-days resulted in increased doctor’s visits for respiratory problems.  Studies have also identified pollution from oil and gas sites as a significant contributor to ozone problems in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Ozone can cause a whole host of respiratory problems ranging from shortness of breath to hospital visits and early death. Children, the elderly, and folks with respiratory diseases, like asthma, are particularly at risk when ozone levels climb.  Increased ozone levels can also harm the cardiovascular system and result in increased visits to the hospital for heart attacks and other heart-related diseases. Ozone is formed in the atmosphere and can move with the wind causing health problems for entire regions not just people living close to fracking sites.

Fracking poses unique air quality threats in addition to increasing air pollution already associated with oil and gas development.

For example, the toxic soup that comes back up after fracking occurs (known as flowback) is a source of pollutants that volatilize from the liquid into the air.  A recent government study of air contamination at fracking sites, found extremely high levels of the toxic chemical benzene near the tanks where flowback water was being stored. The levels were so high that the researchers recommended that workers should be kept away from the area and wear respirators if they needed to be in the vicinity.  Downwind of the tanks, this study measured benzene levels  that were more than 1,000 times greater than the levels where you could expect nervous system impacts for short-term exposures and if exposed chronically, impacts to the blood forming organs (like anemia) and the developing fetus. In the published study, there is a photo of the fracking site and the tanks where the testing was conducted and visible just behind the tanks is the roof of a home.  Based on the results and the levels measured in this study, I am very worried for the health of the family in that home.  They can’t just avoid the area nor can they go about their lives wearing respirators.

The unsafe levels of air pollution found near fracking sites are largely being ignored by federal and state agencies.

Current policies and regulations are way out of step with the science documenting air pollution threats from fracking sites.  Loopholes in key federal laws, government surveys of pollution which grossly underestimate contaminant levels, weak regulations, shoddy enforcement, and patchy state protections mean that communities are not receiving the safeguards needed to prevent both short and long-term health impacts.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental/health agencies must stop looking the other way while oil and gas companies pump poisons into the air.  Comprehensive evaluations of health threats, robust monitoring of pollution emissions, air testing in communities, and strict standards to limit pollution must be in place to protect communities. It’s time for real action to protect the health of communities living with the consequences of the oil and gas boom.  

About the Authors

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

Senior Scientist, Health and Environment program

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