This content is derived from the Physicians For Social Responsibility Compendium 3.0
Studies increasingly show that air pollution associated with drilling and fracking operations is a grave concern with a range of impacts. Researchers have documented dozens of air pollutants from drilling and fracking operations that pose serious health hazards. Areas with substantial drilling and fracking build-out show high levels of ozone, striking declines in air quality, and, in several cases, increased rates of health problems with known links to air pollution. Air sampling surveys finds exceedingly high concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially carcinogenic benzene, and formaldehyde, both at the wellhead, and at distances that exceed legal setback distances from wellhead to residence. In some cases, concentrations exceeded federal safety standards by several orders of magnitude.
Several studies in the Compendium 3.0 showed air pollution levels registering high enough to cause short and long-term disease particularly for those living with proximity of fracking operations. Health effects may include respiratory disease, neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer. Study also suggests that shale gas development contributes to levels of ambient air concentrations known to be associated with increased risk of morbidity and mortality. The reductions in air quality for rural areas were compared to pollution levels worse than Los Angeles. Monitoring of pollutants and ozone has been grossly underestimated by the industry and has been found to be “significant and unavoidable” with fracking operations.
Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX)—are endocrine disruptors commonly found in ambient air around fracking operations. These emissions can interfere with human hormones at low exposure levels; including at concentrations well below EPA recommended exposure limits. Using standard EPA methodologies, researchers determined that the excess lifetime cancer risk for residents living nearest the wells was about 45 percent higher than for residents living farthest from them.
Fracking can pollute air hundreds of miles downwind from the well pad, according to the results of a study from University of Maryland. The study found month-to-month correlations, indicating that the ethane pollution in the air over Maryland appeared to be coming from drilling and fracking operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Another discovery has been the fluctuation of emissions at fracking sites that can be a source of extreme exposure to volatile chemicals particularly during nighttime hours when the air is still. This study demonstrates the need to determine the aggregate quantitative impact on health when multiple facilities are placed near residences, schools, daycare centers and other locations where people are present.
Fracking facilities with exposed waste pits also released tons of toxic chemicals into the air as the water evaporates. Not all states allow open waste pits. Flaring commonly associated with natural gas wells, is not only wasteful burning of natural resources, but a major contributor to volatile organic compounds being released into the air. The emissions can rival what comes from standard oil refineries that have already been under scrutiny for air pollution.