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Friday, October 31, 2014

Study finds dangerous air pollution near oil and gas sites

A new, peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Environmental Health, has found "potentially dangerous” levels of local air pollution near oil and gas drilling and transmission sites.

Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study found:
Air concentrations of potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures are frequently present near oil and gas production sites...
Levels of eight volatile chemicals exceeded federal guidelines under several operational circumstances. Benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds to exceed acute and other health-based risk levels…
The study monitored air at locations in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, sampling air near a mix of sites, including compressor stations, production pads and condensate tank farms. Some but not all of the sampling sites were associated with hydraulic fracturing. 
It used trained local residents to gather air samples, because: 
Deploying residents allowed for quick monitoring in places where they suspected something was wrong, based on bad odors, symptoms such as nausea or other problems.
The study's sampling was done as a snapshot—air at one moment in time, or in the case of formaldehyde, over the course of at least eight hours. [Lead author David O.] Carpenter said that's not how states have typically handled their own monitoring, the results of which have suggested little cause for alarm or weren't detailed enough to determine whether a health risk existed.
By averaging the results over days, weeks or months, state monitors risk missing the sporadic emission spikes that can harm exposed people, he said. 
"Our results indicate that the longer-term monitoring misses peak concentrations, which may be very important," Carpenter said. 
Toxic substances in 20 percent of the 76 samples taken for the study exceeded safe levels for brief exposure while another 20 percent exceeded standards for longer-term exposure. The study authors said they thought both were appropriate comparisons in part because residents picked areas to sample where odors and health complaints were common.  
There are several implications from this and similar studies. As another lead author, Gregg P. Macy noted,
"The key takeaway is we really need to start sampling at the scales dictated by community concerns, the same concerns that are sometimes lodged in county and state agencies as complaints but that are experienced daily"...
Better air quality monitoring near oil and gas sites and facilities is obviously needed, and the community-based model used here is worth serious consideration as - in the authors' words - a "supplement" to state monitoring regimes. And while there's also a need for more research, incomplete understanding of the pubic health impacts of oil and gas development should not preclude action. At minimum, those actions should include requiring best available control technology on all natgas drilling and transmission equipment and banning open impoundments for storing any drilling-related fluids.

Oct. 31, 2014 update: Here's a link to the full study.

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