REPORT: Five Major Health Threats from Fracking-Related Air Pollution

Most Comprehensive Analysis of Science To-Date Identifies Potential Health Risks and Communities Most Impacted

SAN FRANCISCO – A growing body of evidence shows that people both near and far from oil and gas drilling are exposed to fracking-related air pollution that can cause at least five major types of health impacts, according to a new comprehensive analysis of scientific studies to-date by the Natural Resources Defense Council.  The health impacts include respiratory problems, birth defects, blood disorders, cancer and nervous system impacts, raising serious concerns for workers and people living closest to wells, as well as entire regions with high volumes of oil and gas activity.

“The health risks from fracking are not limited to what’s in our drinking water—oil and gas operations are also poisoning the air we breathe,” said NRDC senior scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman. “While industry continues to try to sweep the impacts of fracking under a rug, the science keeps revealing serious health threats—for workers, families living nearby and entire regions with heavy oil and gas activity.”

Fracking Fumes: Air Pollution from Hydraulic Fracturing Threatens Public Health and Communities provides the most comprehensive analysis of available science to-date on toxic air pollution from oil and gas development. It identifies an emerging pattern in the science revealing unsafe levels of air pollution near fracking sites around the country. More research is needed to better understand a wide range of other threats that have emerged.

The report breaks down the health impacts that scientists have identified on the local, regional and global scales. It shows that health threats from air pollution are not limited to communities with drilling directly in their backyards.  Rather, entire regions with high levels of oil and gas activity are paying the price with smog-filled skies and respiratory problems.

This infographic illustrates the geographic scale of the health impacts: An overview follows:

  • Global: In addition to carbon pollution, fracking operations emit massive amounts of methane pollution, which drive global climate change. Methane warms the climate at least 80 times more than an equal amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
  • Regional: Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) form ground-level ozone. In communities where there is a lot of drilling, this can cause respiratory and cardiovascular effects on a regional scale, even for those who don’t live in close proximity to wells. Impacts include coughs, shortness of breath, airway and lung inflammation, decreased lung function, worsening of asthma and other respiratory diseases, cardiac arrhythmia, increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, increased hospital admissions and premature mortality.
  • Local: Those living or working closest to wells are at the highest risk. In addition to the aforementioned health threats, they can also be exposed to diesel particulate matter and other toxics, including carcinogens. As a result, they are also at risk for eye, nose and throat irritation, brain and nervous system problems including headaches, lightheadedness and disorientation, blood and bone marrow damage leading to anemia and immunological problems, reproductive system effects, birth defects and harm to the developing fetus, and cancer.

Of these impacts, there is the greatest amount of evidence raising concern about risks for the following health impacts:

  • Respiratory Problems: Impacts can include asthma attacks, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing and lung disease. Levels of pollutants high enough to cause respiratory problems, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children, have been found both close to fracking sites and in regions with intense oil and gas activity. Workers have been found to be at risk of permanent lung damage caused by exposure to silica fracking sand.
  • Nervous System Impacts: Exposure to these pollutants, such as VOCs and hydrogen sulfide, can cause neurological problems ranging from dizziness and headaches to seizures and loss of consciousness. Multiple studies have measured benzene levels close to fracking sites that are higher than the thresholds set to protect people from these impacts.
  • Birth Defects & Harm to the Developing Fetus: A number of VOCs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been found to interfere with fetal and child development resulting in harm to the developing heart, brain and nervous system. Because even short-term exposures to these pollutants at critical moments of development can result in long-lasting harm, health experts have identified this as a threat for communities living in close proximity to fracking sites. 
  • Blood Disorders: The levels of benzene measured in multiple studies were high enough to raise concerns about permanent damage to blood-forming organs, resulting in harm to bone marrow and anemia, if there were repeated or chronic exposures.
  • Cancer: Cancer-causing pollutants like benzene, formaldehyde, diesel particulates and PAHs, have also been found in the air near fracking sites. Repeated or chronic exposures to these pollutants can cause an increased risk of cancer.

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.

Unfortunately, air pollution impacts have gone largely ignored by federal and state agencies to date. The Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state governments, must address air pollution from oil and gas development in order to protect the health of neighboring residents.

With approximately one in four Americans now living within a mile of an oil or gas well, and fracking spreading the industry’s reach even further across the country,  this report underscores the need for immediate action to protect public health.

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