Fracking Fumes: Where There’s a Well, All Is Not Well

After analyzing 24 scientific studies, the Natural Resources Defense Council finds plenty to worry about, from birth defects to deadly effects.

Karnes County resident Lynn Buehring wears a respirator outdoors to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the fumes that envelop her home. More than 50 wells have been drilled nearby. Credit: Lance Rosenfield/Prime

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Emissions from oil-and-gas production pose a significant threat to human health, and immediate steps must be taken to reduce exposure to the toxic pollution, according to an analysis of scientific studies by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

After reviewing the findings of 24 studies conducted by both government agencies and academic organizations, the evidence shows that people living both close to and far from oil-and-gas drilling are exposed to fracking-related air pollution that can cause at least five major types of health problems, according to the NRDC’s report, Fracking Fumes.

The report says fracking threatens air quality as much as it does water quality and calls for an immediate moratorium on any new wells until a comprehensive analysis of health effects can be performed.

Putting a halt to fracking won’t jeopardize jobs or local economies, said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney for the NRDC. It will encourage development of alternative energy sources that will mean jobs and financial growth, she said.

She argues that these new energy sources will be more sustainable and consequently have a longer-lasting financial impact than oil-and-gas extraction.

An investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity earlier this year focused on the danger of emissions from oil-and-gas facilities in south Texas, finding that too little is being done to protect people from the bad air.

Breathing the tainted air can cause respiratory problems, birth defects, blood ailments, cancer and nervous system disorders, raising serious concerns for people living closest to wells, according to the NRDC’s report.  It also cautions that entire regions in proximity to oil-and-gas activity can be affected.

Those findings come as no surprise to Lynn Buehring, a Karnes County, Texas resident who wears a respirator outdoors to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the fumes that envelop the small ranch house she shares with her husband.

More than 50 wells have been drilled within 2.5 miles of her home. Ugly black smoke wafts from towering flares used to burn off unused gas, the air is heavy with the odor of rotten eggs, and occasionally a mysterious slime coats the ground.

She has sought medical treatment for respiratory problems, severe headaches and rashes­­––all symptoms reported by people across the county who live near oil-and-gas facilities.

“Until you have to breathe this air, you have no idea how bad it is,” Buehring said. “It feels like someone is squeezing your chest so tight you can’t breathe.”

She’s infuriated that the industry brushes aside the fears of people, and that regulators give little credence to the emerging science that shows the dangers of fracking emissions.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuels.

A Near and Present Danger

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, an NRDC senior scientist who was one of two authors of the report, said the lives of people like Buehring and tens of thousands of others in heavy drilling states are at risk.

“While industry continues to try to sweep the impacts of fracking under a rug, the science keeps revealing serious health threats for families living nearby,” she said.

Rotkin-Ellman attributes the heightened consciousness to a growing body of science and the public awareness generated by news stories like those by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity.

“What we are seeing in the science are pollutants in concentrations high enough to be harmful and what we are hearing from people speaking out is that they are being made sick,” Rotkin-Ellman said.

“When taken together that presents a pretty compelling picture of the consequences associated with fracking operations.”

Now that scientific studies are beginning to catch up with the fracking boom, she said, it’s becoming more difficult for the industry to dismiss public health worries.

“The science allows us to move beyond speculation,” Rotkin-Ellman said. “We can drive the conversation based on scientific facts.”

There’s Something in the Air 

The NRDC report provides an analysis of available science gleaned from 18 peer-reviewed academic publications and six government studies on toxic air pollution from oil-and-gas development. When taken together, a pattern emerges of unsafe levels of air pollution near fracking sites around the country, Rotkin-Ellman said.

The report breaks down the health impacts that scientists have identified on the local, regional and global scales. NRCD is a New York City-based, non-profit environmental group that advocates strict environmental protection.

Health threats from fracking-generated 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, according to the report.

Studies reviewed by the NRDC revealed high enough concentrations of hydrocarbon pollutants including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene to trigger illness.

In a study of gas wells in rural northeastern Utah, researchers discovered that benzene levels exceeded health standards set by the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry and the California Environmental Protection Agency to protect against harm to the immune and blood systems, and to developing fetuses.

In another study considered by the NRDC, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection found benzene concentrations one-eighth of a mile from oil wells in excess of levels the Center for Disease Control and Prevention considers “the minimum risk level for no health effects.” That distance is farther than many states require as a buffer from oil-and-gas operations, according to the study.

The NRDC study acknowledged that it is difficult to measure actual exposures to pollutants from nearby fracking operations and establish a firm relation to adverse health effects.

Yet some studies reviewed by the NRDC found links between air pollutants that are present at oil-and-gas production sites and health impacts in nearby communities.

As an example, the study cites an evaluation of birth defects in areas of Colorado with high concentrations of oil-and-gas activity: mothers who lived nearby were 30 percent more likely to give birth to babies with heart defects. And preliminary results from a study in Pennsylvania show impacts among newborns, such as increases in low birth weight, that could be linked to air pollution.

Dying on the Job at Oil Well Sites

One of the most substantive reports reviewed by the NRDC was prepared by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related injury and illness.

The agency surveyed the exposure of oil-and-gas workers to petrochemical emissions. In 2010, the deaths of at least four workers had links to chemical and petroleum vapor exposure at oil well sites in North Dakota and Montana. Air samples collected by NIOSH at oil-and-gas facilities at sites in Colorado and Wyoming showed workers exposed to high levels of benzene.

The regional and global impacts associated with fracking and other stages of oil-and-gas production are found in the release of nitrogen oxides and VOCs, which react to sunlight to form ozone, a prime component of smog.

A growing number of studies attribute emissions of ozone precursors from rapidly growing oil-and-gas development to significantly elevated ozone concentrations in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Pennsylvania, Texas and Oklahoma.

The View from Texas: ‘No Cause for Alarm’

Even with the growing body of scientific evidence, the NRDC’s Rotkin-Ellman laments that there remains reluctance in some circles to acknowledge the connection between fracking and air contamination.

Texas is an example. The state leads the nation in oil-and-gas production, primarily though fracking of the Eagle Ford and Barnett Shale regions. That puts the state on the leading edge of the debate over health risks associated with emissions.

Yet the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency responsible for air quality in the state where tens of thousands of oil-and-gas wells have been sunk, sees no problem.

The agency has consistently maintained that the industry does not contribute to unhealthful air.  Citing its own air quality monitoring data—figures challenged as either misleading or flat-out wrong by environmental organizations—agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said it has “found no cause for alarm.”

Monitoring data based on several million air-monitoring data points for volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants has provided evidence that overall shale-play activity does not significantly affect air quality or pose a threat to human health, Morrow said.

The NRDC report makes six recommendations, including: improved air quality monitoring near oil-and-gas facilities; defining and mandating adequate setback requirements to reduce the exposure of residents to air pollutants; additional scientific studies in regions with intensive oil-and-gas development to examine the effects of air pollution on human health.

David Brown, a toxicologist with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which helps residents whose health may be affected by natural gas development, said the NRDC’s report fortifies the evidence connecting fracking emissions with health issues.

“The industry and regulators have been able to say there is nothing showing the emissions are creating problems,” he said. “This puts a face on the very real problems.”

“If there had been a look at public health risks before the runaway development; the kind of examination that we are seeing now—I think you’d see a whole different approach to the way the industry conducts business,” he said.