Energy. Environment. Economy.

Health Project Finds Air Pollution Could Pose More Threat Than Water Contamination

A natural gas compressor station in Washington County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpactPA

A natural gas compressor station in Washington County.

A nonprofit health project examining the long-term impacts of natural gas drilling in Washington County has released preliminary findings that shows air pollution may be more damaging than water pollution, according to the Associated Press.

Since February 2012, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project has gathered information from residents who believe their health has been affected by nearby drilling activity or natural gas processing.

The Associated Press details some of the study’s main findings:

The project found 27 cases where people in Washington County believe they were hurt by nearby drilling — seven cases of skin rashes, four of eye irritation, 13 of breathing problems and three of headaches and dizziness. The skin exposures were from water, and the other cases were from air. The numbers don’t represent a full survey of the area, just cases so far with plausible exposures.

The EHP group is trying to help those who have been exposed to drilling-related air or water pollution, toxicologist David Brown said, adding that they’re finding “an array of symptoms” in some people who live close to either wells or processing stations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recently cited a Washington County compressor station for emitting black smoke for two days in mid-July which caused several residents to complain.

However, there are experts who argue that natural gas is a public health improvement compared to burning coal and produces fewer emissions.

“There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution,” said Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the Associated Press.

The industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition has maintained that natural gas has helped improve air quality for Pennsylvanians.


  • Iris Marie Bloom

    The fact that people are suffering many symptoms from exposure to severe air pollution from compressor stations, flaring, and toxic fracking waste pits, as well as from the drilling and fracturing stages, matters. It is news only to those who haven’t been paying attention for the past 4 years in Pennsylvania, or the past ten years in Texas, Wyoming and elsewhere.

    But it also matters that often air pollution and water pollution is combined to amplify health impacts from shale gas development. People sometimes first have their water impacted, then their air, then their water again, then their air again. It’s not an “either-or.”

    This is a terrible and completely preventable, serious situation. It calls for questioning the PA Department of Health and PA DEP, rather than spurious speculation with no basis whatsoever in evidence that fracking is “lengthening” people’s lives! It’s certainly not lengthening the lives of the people nearby– quite the opposite. And the reduction in coal emissions is often mis-attributed to fracking when it’s a combination of warmer winters, recession, and political pressure. That claim is so absurd, so hypothetical and so contrary to fact as to have no place in a serious news story. Please report the actual health impacts and report them seriously instead of seeking out speculation so that people’s health can be made into a football game. “Frac rash,” burning eyes, headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue, sudden-onset asthma and the other symptoms are not a game.

    • Iris Marie Bloom

      The report singled out MarkWest, a company which has been making people sick, sometimes sending people to the ER, in western Pennsylvania. This is significant for Philadelphia because MarkWest processes natural gas so that it can put natural gas “liquids” into a Sunoco Logistics pipeline to the Philadelphia region, specifically Marcus Hook. We don’t want to be complicit in making people sick acutely, let alone long term:

      The health report included the important finding that “A previous DEP report found some of the state’s highest levels of gas drilling air pollution in Washington County, including toxic compounds such as benzene, toluene and formaldehyde. Other gas drilling firms and companies operate in the area, too.

      Long-term exposure to benzene can affect the immune system and cause cancer, while toluene can cause excessive sleepiness, confusion and, with long-term exposure, brain damage.”

    • KeepTapWaterSafe

      Michael Greenstone, the professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the living longer assertion, saying: “That’s because many power plants have stopped burning coal and switched to natural gas, which emits far less fine soot, nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide.”

      MIT, and its latest wunderkind, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, also faculty member, are talking about winning a race to the bottom. No one questions whether burning NG in power plants is better than coal. This is a total distraction from the study results, and the reality faced by people living in gas production zones.

  • Kim Triolo Feil

    Maybe we wouldn’t get as sick if they….
    1) use natural gas fired engines on rigs/compressors/trucks for preproduction phases (Catepillar makes a converter that allows the frack engines to revert to diesel during idling).

    2) ensure no silicia dust can fly off the padsite and ban the use of uranium to perf detonations

    3) flowback right away- don’t let the well sour and use pressurized tanks (ventless) for flowback..NO open hatch flowback tanks!

    4) use vapor recovery systems on storage tanks..p e r i o d…no thief hatches.

    5) do not allow indirect venting on compressor blowdowns – they must direct whats stuck in the lines to the storage tanks that are equipped with vapor recovery systems.

    6) use the BTEX Eliminator equipment on their dehydrators

    7) invent erosion proof cement and rust proof steel for their casings

    8) pray Climate Change isn’t real and therefore the bridge fuel for natural gas won’t be the detractor for real renewables which is our only hope.

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