For years, residents of oil and gas field communities have reported health problems that either started or got worse after oil and gas development activities began in the area where they live, work, and play. The most widespread symptoms include respiratory problems like asthma and coughing, eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, trouble sleeping, and fatigue.
In response, industry and its proponents have often said that these reports of health impacts are just a few isolated “anecdotes.” But communities and individuals living with oil and gas development know that’s not true—and in recent years clear evidence has backed this up.
Today, more than 12 million US residents live within a half-mile of an oil or gas well or facility. Health impacts can result from oil and gas pollution, the creation and storage of waste, and the constant noise and light that exist around operations.
The toxic nature of hundreds of the chemicals and pollutants associated with oil and gas development is scientifically well-established. In addition, the number of research studies on health problems has also grown in recent years.
Even with all this information and clear patterns in symptoms and experiences, it can be difficult to connect activities at specific well sites or facilities with the health of people living nearby. Even though they may have ample evidence, too often residents have to bear a heavy burden of proof regarding the harm they experience.
Two key challenges in demonstrating connections are:
- Most monitoring of air and water quality is done around large urban areas and for public water supplies—which excludes many oil and gas field communities. In addition, state and federal environmental and regulatory agencies generally conduct testing only in response to resident complaints or when problems become so severe that they are investigated.
As a result, residents need more “baseline” data to show that their air and water quality were different before oil and gas activities started—and in turn that operations changed conditions. Fortunately, community groups and researchers work to close this information gap.
- Second, regulators and health agencies have developed “safety” standards through testing of single chemicals and one-time (generally 8-hour) exposures. But people living near gas wells and facilities day in and day out, as well as workers at job sites, are often subjected to multiple toxic substances simultaneously and on a chronic, long-term basis.
This gap makes it possible for industry to assert that their operations are safe as long as concentrations of chemicals are below a certain threshold—regardless of how many chemicals exist in air or water or the changes that residents experience.
In addition, health standards may not exist for many of the pollutants associated with both oil and gas activities. It’s important for oil and gas field residents to share information and experiences so that patterns in health exposures and symptoms can be identified. In turn, the more evidence there is, the harder it will be for industry and officials to deny the reality of health impacts.