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Health impacts from US oil, natural gas extraction “inadequately measured”

09 April 2019

An academic review of studies on hazardous air pollutants associated with oil and natural gas extraction has found that measurements of hazardous air pollutant concentrations near operational sites have generally failed to capture levels above standard health benchmarks, despite most studies continuing to find that poor health outcomes increase as the distance from sites decreases.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

The review article was published in the 2019 volume of Annual Review of Public Health.

The researchers examined 37 peer-reviewed journal articles published between January 2012 and February 2018. One study focused on Poland and the rest on the U.S. While it is unclear why there is a gap in the evidence between environmental sampling and health-based studies, the review provides insights into methodological shortcomings that may help explain this discrepancy.

The authors state that current health benchmarks may not provide accurate risk estimates from the broad range of pollutants associated with oil and natural gas development. The benchmarks may also fail to adequately address potential risks associated with long-term, chronic, lower levels of exposure or from a mixture of chemicals.

A failure of sampling methods to properly account for degradation and dispersion of pollutants, or inappropriate sampling timeframes that may not capture peak emission periods that are characteristic of oil and natural gas extraction, may also contribute to the current gap in the studies.

The authors call for additional investigations of emissions using measurements and research that incorporate appropriate timeframes and proximity to oil and gas extraction on health impacts from chronic, low-level ambient hazardous air pollutant exposures, among others. Several hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, and ethyl-benzene are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as known or suspected carcinogens that have been measured at elevated concentrations around oil and natural gas extraction sites.

It is hoped that the review will help guide future research on air quality near oil and natural gas development sites by highlighting future research priorities. It may also bring insights into possible exposures of communities near oil and natural gas development and storage sites such as Aliso Canyon in Los Angeles’ Porter Ranch, where there was a major methane leak that affected the community.

The authors of the review were Diane Garcia-Gonzales and Michael Jerrett of UCLA; Seth Shonkoff of UC Berkeley; and Jake Hayes of Cornell University.

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