Study: Air at Fracking Sites Hazardous

Monday, March 19, 2012 @ 01:03 PM gHale

Air emissions caused by fracking may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for those living near natural gas drilling sites, a new study says.

“Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development that has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing,” said Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, and lead author of a study and research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora, CO.

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There are potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near the wells including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, the report said. The Environmental Protection Agency identified benzene as a known carcinogen. Based on three years of monitoring, the report fround other chemicals in the air including heptane, octane and diethylbenzene. There is a limited amount of information on their toxicity.

“Our results show that the non-cancer health impacts from air emissions due to natural gas development is greater for residents living closer to wells,” the report said. “The greatest health impact corresponds to the relatively short-term, but high emission, well completion period.”

That’s due to exposure to trimethylbenzenes, aliaphatic hydrocarbons, and xylenes, all of which have neurological and/or respiratory effects, the study said. Those effects could include eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing.

“We also calculated higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells as compared to those residing further [away],” the report said. “Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risk from both scenarios.”

The report, which looked at those living about a half-mile from the wells, comes in response to the rapid expansion of natural gas development in rural Garfield County, in western Colorado.

Typically, wells develop in stages including drilling followed by hydraulic fracturing, the high powered injection of water and chemicals into the drilled area to release the gas. After that, there is flowback or the return of fracking and geologic fluids, hydrocarbons and natural gas to the surface. Developers then collect the gas and sell it.

Garfield County asked the Colorado School of Public Health to assess the potential health impacts of these wells on the community of Battlement Mesa with a population of about 5,000.

McKenzie analyzed ambient air sample data collected from monitoring stations by the Garfield County Department of Public Health and Olsson Associates Inc. She used standard EPA methodology to estimate non-cancer health impacts and excess lifetime cancer risks for hydrocarbon exposure.

McKenzie noted EPA standards are public health proactive and may overestimate risks.
“However, there wasn’t data available on all the chemicals emitted during the well development process,” she said. “If there had been, then it is entirely possible the risks would have been underestimated.”

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