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Study Focuses On Health Impacts From Oil and Natural Gas Extraction
May 23, 2019

Energy demands have increased over several decades as technical innovations have led to more extraction of oil and natural gas, making the United States one of the world’s leading producers of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons. Several hazardous air pollutants such as benzene, toluene, and ethyl-benzene are listed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as known or suspected carcinogens, or that carry other health effects, have been measured at elevated concentrations around oil and natural gas extraction sites.

According to information provided by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Sciences, an examination of 37 peer-reviewed journal articles published between Jan. 1, 2012, and Feb. 28, 2018, on hazardous air pollutants associated with the extraction of oil and natural gas has found that measurements of hazardous air pollutant concentrations near operational sites have generally failed to capture levels above standard health benchmarks, although the majority of studies continue to find poor health outcomes increasing as distance from these operations decreases.

While it is unclear why there is a gap in the evidence between environmental sampling and health-based studies, the current review, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a Garcia-Gonzales’ Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship fellowship and published in the 2019 volume of Annual Review of Public Health, provides insights into methodological shortcomings that may help explain this discrepancy. According to the article’s authors, the current health benchmarks may not provide accurate risk estimates from the broad range of pollutants associated with oil and natural gas development, and fail to adequately address potential risks associated with long-term, chronic, lower levels of exposure or from a mixture of chemicals. Further, 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 literature.

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

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