Community Members Believe Health Problems Related to Emissions Exposure
(Boulder, CO) Community members from six states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Wyoming -- sampled the air near oil and gas development sites, including fracking sites, and found that the air contains dangerous toxics linked to health problems. Monitoring results from the entire six-state sampling project showed that some chemical levels were hundreds of times higher than what some federal agencies have determined to be safe.
The monitoring results were released today in a new report titled Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Development Sites. The report was released alongside a peer reviewed article titled “Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: A community-based exploratory study” published today in the journal Environmental Health.
The air monitoring study and report is a joint project, convened by Coming Clean and Global Community Monitor between more than 12 community organizations in six states, and national health, science and sustainable business organizations. The groups conducted the project because community members feel they are being sickened by chemicals from nearby oil and gas development sites.
David Carpenter, MD, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, at New York State University at Albany and also at the Collaborating Center of the World Health Organization, is a senior author on the Environmental Health journal article. “As a health professional, I am concerned that the citizens in these communities were experiencing health problems that they believe are linked to the oil and gas production near their homes,” Carpenter said. “Chemical exposure is insidious and cumulative, and so it may take years to really understand the magnitude of impacts on people’s health from oil and gas development.”
As indication of these impacts, some local community members experienced health problems as they were conducting air sampling associated with this project. April Lane and other members of the group ArkansasFracking.org, took air samples near natural gas compressor stations and at other oil and gas development sites in four counties in central Arkansas, where she lives. “Almost all of us who took air samples reported health symptoms while sampling was taking place, including headaches; dizziness or lightheadedness; irritated, burning, or running nose; nausea; and sore or irritated throat,” she explained. “And many of our community members experience these health symptoms on a daily basis. I have a five year-old son and have to wonder what kind of problems might he and other children have to endure?”
“Unfortunately, April’s experience is not unique,” added Denny Larson, with Global Community Monitor, the organization that conducted air monitoring training for this project. “But it shows how important it is for communities to be directly involved in monitoring the air they breathe. They know their communities better than anyone, and the combination of scientific data and personal experiences can help government agencies that are supposed to be protecting our health, to do their job.”
Air samples were taken by community residents who were trained in the use of various air monitoring devices (most of which are routinely used by government agencies) at times when people experienced health symptoms, smelled strange odors or observed activities at the oil and gas sites. Samples were then sent for analysis to an independent laboratory that uses federal government-approved analysis methods.
The most shocking monitoring results came from Wyoming, where levels of hydrogen sulfide registered 660 times higher than the federal health standard. Other chemicals measured above federal risk levels for cancer or non-cancer effects, include formaldehyde, benzene, hexane and toluene.
Deb Thomas, resident of the rural farming and ranching community in Clark, Wyoming, and Executive Director of ShaleTest.org said, “Communities have been living with this toxic development for decades, and now we find out we are being exposed to chemicals at levels that pose an immediate danger to life and health, according to government standards. Our families have serious health conditions, livestock and pets are sick and dying, and property values have already plummeted. Fighting to protect what’s left of our communities has become a way of life. That the contamination has reached this level -- legally! -- is a shameful disgrace. This industry isn’t just fracking for oil and gas...it’s fracturing communities and lives.”
“I used to work in the oil and gas industry, so I know how lax they can be with controlling emissions from these oil and gas sites,” commented John Fenton, a farmer and participant in the study with the Wyoming group Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens.“ At first we thought the oil and gas companies were a great gift for our region, but the reality is that they have destroyed our way of life. My family members have experienced bad health impacts, and I myself am contending with hair loss and other problems. We need regulatory agencies and legislators who will protect our people, not just the industry interests.”
“We need to do more to reconcile the conflicting results in oil and gas research, particularly when you compare community-driven and state monitoring data. Our research is important not only for its basic findings, but the scale at which we took samples, and the factors that motivated sample location,” said Gregg Macey, PhD, JD, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and an author of the article in Environmental Health.“ Our study focuses on complex mixtures of chemicals that can persist at ground level in air that residents routinely breathe. This includes spots that are a considerable distance from well pads, and beyond prevailing setback requirements.”
Frank Finan from Breath Easy Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania helped gather air samples there, and has videotaped many incidences of toxic chemicals flaring from wells in his community. Frank commented, “Many people want to believe that oil and gas development is safe. But the truth is that we are being exposed to toxic chemicals from oil and gas production in our community. The sooner we face the truth and recognize science as our best tool, the better off we'll all be.”
“My rural country community falls through state and federal cracks when it comes to holding the oil and gas industry accountable for impacts to our air and public health risks from Marcellus Shale development,” added Rebecca Roter with Breathe Easy Susquehanna County. “People living around natural gas compressors and other infrastructure have experienced nosebleeds, decreased respiratory function, sinus infections, headaches and other suspected health impacts. We want real-time monitoring, for scientists to have access to development sites, and for use of the best technology available to prevent exposure to harmful chemicals. We want the industry to be held accountable for our air quality and community health.”
Christine Hughes, owner of the Village Bakery and Cafe near Athens, Ohio, is concerned about the impacts on her community from toxic fracking waste being disposed of by injection into underground wells. Scientific studies show that the waste can contain radioactive materials and harmful heavy metals, and the waste injection process has been linked to an increase in earthquakes. Christine remains concerned not only about health, but also business impacts. “What does it mean when toxic emissions are occurring near fields where our food is grown? I depend on productive organic farming businesses to supply me with ingredients for the food I serve my customers, and having clean air and water is essential for agriculture and our health,” Hughes said. “We want more protective health policies in our state, and more investment in clean energy sources that don’t create this highly toxic waste in the first place.”
In many states, local governments have stepped up to protect their communities from the health, environmental and economic harm associated with oil and gas development. “Here in Colorado, citizens groups gathered over 300,000 signatures for a state ballot initiatives to give local communities like mine, greater control over fracking regulations, but the effort was scuttled by politicians,” says Rod Brueske, whose farm is near Erie, Colorado, where air samples near a waste pond showed high levels of hydrogen sulfide. “This data shows clearly why our elected representatives need to stand up for the health of their constituents, rather than the oil and gas industry’s profits.” Brueske continued, “I’m a farmer who has invested blood, sweat and tears to make a good living here. I’ve been told by one elected official to ‘just leave,’ but that’s not going to happen. Local governments should have the right to protect our health when the state or federal governments fail to do so.”
Katie Huffling, RN, CNM, Director of Programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, was involved in the air-monitoring project as a health professional, and advocated for involvement of health professionals in tracking the potential health hazards of fracking and other activities. “Asthma, headaches, and issues during pregnancy, such as birth defects, have all been on the rise in communities near oil and gas development,” she said. “As a nurse I’m alarmed that some public health departments, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Health, have been discouraging their staff from responding to calls from the public about these health problems. This lack of action by agencies who have been charged with protecting the public health, has made it difficult for health care providers and researchers to track the harm being experienced in communities where oil and gas development are taking place.”
“At the Center for Environmental Health, we are very concerned about communities living near fracking sites, especially women and children who are particularly vulnerable to health problems from fracking pollution,” said Caroline Cox, Research Director at CEH and co-author of the study. “Many of the chemicals identified in these fracking emissions are known to cause serious health problems,” said CEH East Coast Director Ansje Miller, coordinator of CEH's contributions to the study. CEH supports the current New York State fracking moratorium. “Instead of fracking we should be focusing on renewable solutions that provide healthier energy alternatives to fossil fuels like oil and gas.”
Many organizations and experts are advocating that state and federal regulatory agencies act urgently to improve monitoring methods and restrict development activities. “In New York, residents worked toward a statewide ban on fracking,” said Wes Gillingham from Catskill Mountainkeeper. “We also won an important legal case that has set a precedent for communities to reject energy companies efforts to drill for gas and oil on their land. The air sampling results from other states shows clearly why this moratorium on fracking should remain in place. We can still prevent some of the destruction that other communities are experiencing.”
“In New York, Ohio and elsewhere, business leaders are concerned about the long term economic impacts of gas and oil development on their business, their communities and the overall economy,” added Hilary Baum, with the American Sustainable Business Council. “Of course, most businesses need clean air and clean water for their operations as well as for healthy employees; and specific business sectors such as food and beverage production are also dependent on uncontaminated soil. There are businesses everywhere that want our economy to move away from polluting fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. With renewables, which are viable now, we no longer have to chose between a strong economy and healthy communities and environment. We can have it all.”
“Impacts from oil and gas development are part of a larger cycle of chemical contamination involving nearly every community and household in the U.S.,” said Elizabeth Crowe, Associate Director of Coming Clean and resident of Boulder County, Colorado. “And people from all backgrounds, walks of life, political parties, and ideologies are demanding safe solutions to this toxic problem. For every day our legislators and agency officials delay precautionary action, more and more people are needlessly exposed to harmful chemicals.”
Molly Rauch from Moms Clean Air Force added, “Dangerous and harmful air emissions were detected near oil and gas operations in this study. Community members know they are breathing bad air, because they feel the health effects every day. These air samples show it. Oil and gas companies should not be given a pass to pollute the places where families live. It's time for strong federal standards for oil and gas air emissions. We need to safeguard the air that children and all community members breathe.”
To view and download the report Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Development Sites, or to view the link to the Environmental Health journal article with detailed air monitoring results, go to: http://comingcleaninc.org/warningsigns.
Throughout 2012-14, community members associated with 12 local groups from six states were trained in air monitoring techniques to test the air near oil and gas development sites, near where they lived. The groups took a total of 76 air samples using a variety of monitoring tools, commonly used by and/or approved by government agencies. Samples were taken when community members detected odors from nearby oil and gas sites, observed activity, or experienced health symptoms. Accredited laboratories analyzed the samples using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved methods, and the results were measured against two federal health risk standards: EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) cancer risk standard, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) Minimal Risk Level non-cancer risk standard. That means, if people are exposed to chemicals at or above those health risk levels, they could experience cancer or other non-cancer health problems because of the chemical exposure.
The sample results are startling: Fifteen of the 35 air-grab samples (in which air is intentionally drawn into a sampling device), and 14 of the 41 passive-collected samples (in which air passively moves through a sampling device), had concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that exceeded the federal cancer or non-cancer risk levels. The chemicals that most commonly exceeded these standards were hydrogen sulfide, a nerve toxicant that is linked to health symptoms like respiratory illness, eye inflammation, headache, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, digestive disturbances and weight loss. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, was also present in the samples. Monitoring results showed the presence of other harmful chemicals including hexane, benzene, xylenes and many more. Samples also revealed many unidentified chemicals, which poses additional challenges when assessing potential health hazards.
More and more science research is emerging that indicates toxic exposures in communities, from oil and gas development. For example, recently the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado identified toxic emissions from oil and gas development in Utah in a new study.
The Warning Signs report put forth recommendations that include:
Community engagement and participation in regulatory and policy decisions on oil and gas development.
Use of a precautionary approach to state and federal regulation of oil and gas development, to help avoid health problems for communities;
More robust monitoring by government agencies and the use of community based monitoring methods to support other techniques;
Disclosure from oil and gas companies, of chemicals used in fracking and other oil and gas development activities.
Greater investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions that do not release toxic air pollution into the environment.
John Fenton, Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, Wyoming. (307) 856-7098. John used to work in the oil and gas industry, and then when oil and gas development began near his home, his child started having seizures and he and other family members became ill. John's hair is falling out and he has terrible headaches.
April Lane, Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, (501) 538-7002. April collected air samples near Conway, Arkansas and can address the issues of people having wells drilled on their land against their will, of people and animals becoming sick.