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Groundbreaking Study Finds Cancer-Causing Air Pollution Near Fracking Sites

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The air quality near fracking sites and other gas and oil operations may not be safe to breathe, according to a new study Air Concentrations of Volatile Compounds Near Oil and Gas Production: A Community-Based Exploratory Study, published today in the journal Environmental Health.

Nearby residents have found that drilling operations like this one in southern Ohio produce toxic air that impacts their health. Photo credit: Stop Fracking Ohio

"Horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and other drilling and well stimulation technologies are now used widely in the United States and increasingly in other countries," the report stated. "They enable increases in oil and gas production, but there has been inadequate attention to human health impacts."

And the analysis of the air samples gathered in Arkansas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming near oil and gas facilities, including fracking sites, found that those impacts could be considerable. They found numerous toxic chemicals that can cause a host of health problems including asthma, headaches and birth defects—in some cases in amounts hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe. It found levels of eight volatile chemicals that exceeded federal guidelines for health-based risk, especially benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfate.

The study cites five reasons why the health impacts of oil and gas extraction and processing operations haven't been more widely studied: more focus on threats to water supplies, limited state air quality monitoring networks, a still-evolving understanding of how certain oil and gas production processes contribute to air quality, variations in emissions and their concentrations, and research that overlooks impacts of importance to residents.

The  new study addresses the latter concern in its groundbreaking use of a community-based process to choose the sampling locations—areas where residents believe they are suffering from the impacts of nearby oil and gas operations. In addition, the study examined locations representing all phases of these operations, not just one step in the process. Twelve community organizations in six states participated in gathering air quality samples, and their results were released in a companion report Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Development Sites.

“The citizens in these communities were experiencing health problems that they believe are linked to the oil and gas production near their homes,” said the study's lead author David Carpenter and director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at New York State University at Albany. “Chemical exposure is insidious and cumulative, and so it may take years to really understand the magnitude of impacts on peoples health from oil and gas development.”

Community members were trained in the use of the same devices used by government agencies that do air quality monitoring. They took their samples at times when people were showing symptoms of illness, smelled strange odors, or saw activities at the sites. The samples were sent to an independent lab for analysis.

One example cited was the new K&H facility in Athens County, Ohio, with 11 large tanks venting volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons 24 hours a day less than a quarter mile from a residential neighborhood. Issues like that have led to the rise of a strong anti-fracking movement in the southeast Ohio county which sits on the Utica shale play.

"I have personally stood in the front yard of one of K&H's neighbors and experienced light-headedness and sore throat in as little as one-half hour of exposure," said Heather Cantino, a member of the Athens County Fracking Action Network. "These are the same symptoms of toxic hydrocarbon exposure that I have felt standing near injection well sites. It breaks my heart to think about the illnesses possibly in store for these neighbors and for their children, whom I watched playing with their puppy in their front yard. The state's allowing these toxic emissions with NO monitoring whatsoever is immoral and should certainly be illegal."

Monitoring in Wyoming, where oil and gas drilling have been going on for decades, revealed the most extreme result: levels of hydrogen sulfide, a potent nerve toxin, were 660 times higher than the federal health standard.

“Our families have serious health conditions, livestock and pets are sick and dying, and property values have plummeted," said Deb Thomas, a resident of rural farming and ranching community of Clark, Wyoming. "That the contamination has reached this level—legally!—is a shameful disgrace. This air monitoring data should be a warning to everyone, including for people living places where its still possible to prevent this contamination. This industry isnt just fracking for oil and gas...its fracturing communities and our lives.”

“Wyoming is the ‘canary in the mine,’" said Athens County resident Sandra Sleight-Brennan. “When you look at the plans that industry has for Ohio—more tanks, more drilling, more pipelines and more barges full of waste being imported, we’d be insane if we didn’t look closely at what has happened in Wyoming. Here in Ohio we have an opportunity, with this new peer-reviewed study, to see the warning signs and learn from them before Ohio becomes the nation’s dumping ground."

Ohio does not monitor emissions from fracking operations.

“This experience shows how important it is for communities to be directly involved in monitoring the air they breathe," said Denny Larson, whose nonprofit organization Global Community Monitor trained the residents who participated in the monitoring. "They know their communities better than anyone, and combination of scientific data and personal experiences can help government agencies that are supposed to be protecting our health, to do their job.”

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