Download the complete report.
“Oil and gas production sites are a major contributor to air pollution.
Chronic exposure to air pollution worsens serious health conditions, including asthma, COPD, and lung cancer; premature birth, birth defects, and developmental delays; heart disease, obesity, kidney disease, liver dysfunction, and type 2 diabetes.
Pre-existing diseases or medical conditions increase the risk of hospitalization or death in patients diagnosed with COVID-19.”
Air pollution and COVID-19: A dangerous combination by Edward Ketyer, MD and Lisa McKenzie, PhD, MPH, January 28, 2021, Physicians for Social Responsibility
Does living near active oil and gas wells increase rates of COVID-19 infection and death? PSR explores this chilling possibility in a new white paper, Air Pollution and COVID-19: A Dangerous Combination.
The report examines five counties in Colorado and five in New Mexico, each with high levels of oil and gas activity. Among its most impactful findings:
- In Colorado, more COVID-19 deaths were observed than expected in three counties that experienced high levels of oil and gas development in 2020.
- In New Mexico, disproportionately high numbers of cases were observed among people aged 20-49 years and Native Americans. Death rates, however, from COVID-19 were higher than expected in only one county.
Given these mixed findings, the report drew no firm conclusions and called for further research.
PSR sent the report to President Biden, accompanied by a letter urging him to take the report’s cautionary findings into account in pursuing further controls on oil and gas extraction. Most immediately, PSR recommended that the president make permanent the “pause” he established on oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
The report was authored by Ned Ketyer, MD, a pediatrician and member of the board of PSR/Pennsylvania, and Lisa McKenzie, PhD MPH, a well-known researcher on the health effects of fracking.
Consider these facts:
• Oil and gas production sites are a major contributor to air pollution.
• Chronic exposure to air pollution worsens serious health conditions, including asthma, COPD, and lung cancer; premature birth, birth defects, and developmental delays; heart disease, obesity, kidney disease, liver dysfunction, and type 2 diabetes.
• Pre-existing diseases or medical conditions increase the risk of hospitalization or death in patients diagnosed with COVID-19.
Given these facts, this report asks an important question: Does exposure to air pollution from oil and gas extraction and processing increase rates of infection and death from COVID-19?
We examined five counties in Colorado and five in New Mexico, each with significant oil and gas operations, and made the following initial observations.
The number of COVID-19 cases was higher than expected in three counties and lower than expected in two. The number of cases was disproportionately high among people aged 20-29 years and Hispanics. More COVID-19 deaths were observed than expected in Adams, Broomfield, and Weld Counties – counties that experienced high levels of oil and gas development in 2020.
New Mexico: The number of COVID-19 cases was higher than expected in three counties and lower than expected in two. Disproportionately high levels of cases were observed among people aged 20-49 years and Native Americans. Higher numbers of deaths from COVID-19 than expected were found in one county and lower than expected in four. Adjustment for age and/or race would likely modify these results, but age and race distributions for COVID-19 deaths are not publicly available in New Mexico.
• As oil and gas operations add to the cumulative air pollution burden, take all available steps to reduce pollution from these sources.
• Because oil and gas pollutant emissions can be controlled, focus efforts on reducing those emissions, whether from leaks, flaring, blowdowns and other deliberate releases, or other causes.
• Our study was an initial inquiry into impacts of oil and gas pollution on COVID-19 and did not generate definitive answers. Rather, this report constitutes only a first step in that inquiry. Further research is needed.
Air pollution and COVID-19 are a dangerous and potentially deadly combination.
… This report explores the potential for exposure to air pollution from oil and gas operations in two Mountain West states to exacerbate infections and deaths due to COVID-19.
Air Pollution Harms Health
Chronic (continued or repeated) exposure to air pollution worsens many serious health conditions and in fact causes some. Decades of research link air pollution with a multitude of cradle-to-grave adverse health impacts including complications of pregnancy and poor birth outcomes, birth defects and childhood developmental delays.2 Breathing polluted air is an important cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adults and of asthma in both children and adults. It is associated with the exacerbation of asthma and COPD and heart disease, and fine particulate matter can cause lung cancer.3 People suffering from mental health conditions are adversely impacted in communities degraded by air pollution.4 In all, according to estimates from the World Health Organization, more than four million people worldwide die prematurely as a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution.5
Air pollutants harm the body via several mechanisms. Fine particulate matter and other air toxics are known to injure the hair-like cilia that line the respiratory tract and act as first-line defenders to remove harmful microorganisms. Inflammation and cellular damage from pollution hamper the immune system charged with protecting the body from invading organisms like coronavirus. When these natural defenses are impaired, infections from respiratory viruses like coronavirus are more likely to occur. Likewise, severe complications and higher death rates from respiratory infections are expected.6
Long-term exposure to air pollution is also associated with the development of obesity and its related health complications of hypertension, kidney disease, liver dysfunction, and type 2 diabetes. These so-called “comorbidities,” or simultaneously existing diseases or medical conditions, are known to increase the risk of poor outcomes in patients diagnosed with COVID-19.7
Air Pollution Exacerbates COVID-19
Coronavirus is a respiratory virus that initially gains access into cells lining the airway. The virus replicates inside the cell before injuring or killing it, and then moves on to other cells, causing more damage. Symptomatic individuals with COVID-19 typically complain of respiratory symptoms: nasal congestion, cough, and shortness of breath. In addition, fever or chills, headache, fatigue and muscle aches are commonly reported.8 Neurological symptoms, including loss of smell and taste, and problems with cognition (“COVID-19 Fog”), are not unusual.9
Severe damage to the respiratory tract in patients with COVID-19, in combination with lungs already damaged from breathing polluted air, creates an increased risk factor for poor health outcomes. Early in the pandemic, researchers studying the regional impact of COVID-19 in Northern Italy’s Po Valley noted that “the highest number of COVID-19 cases were recorded in the most polluted regions with patients presenting with more severe forms of the disease requiring ICU admission.” Mortality was two times higher compared to other regions in Italy.10 In China, a study examined short-term exposure to air pollution and found “a significant relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 infection,” with positive associations seen with large and small particle pollution (PM10 and PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone.11
In the United States, recent research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that exposure to even small increases in long-term fine particle pollution (PM 2.5) is associated with an increase in the death rate from COVID-19. The researchers underscored the importance of enforcing existing regulations that limit air pollution in order to protect public health during (and after) the pandemic.12 Another study from the Georgia State University Andrew Young School of Policy Studies also found a relationship between PM 2.5 exposure and disease and death from COVID-19.13
Chronic exposure to air pollution and high rates of COVID-19 disproportionally affect Black people, Native Americans, and Latinx people.14 In large measure this reflects discriminatory housing patterns: Poor people and minorities are more likely to live in heavily polluted communities. People living near fixed sources of air pollution (factories and power plants) and mobile sources (highways, shipping lanes, airports) experience greater health impacts from pollution. We now know that this same population is experiencing higher numbers of COVID-19 infections, clinical complications, and deaths.15 These facts should concern all Americans, not just those living in environmental justice communities bearing the burden of industrial and fossil fuel pollution in their neighborhoods.
These preliminary findings shouldn’t be surprising. As the COVID-19 public health crisis continues to unfold across the United States and around the world, the association of air pollution and poor clinical outcomes from novel coronavirus infections is becoming increasingly apparent.
Gas and Oil Operations Are a Major Source of Air Pollution
Communities in proximity to oil and gas operations — extractive processes with significant downstream impacts — may also be at increased risk for health impacts from air pollution and COVID-19.
The boom in oil and gas extraction resulting from innovations in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies has brought the industrial activities associated with this extraction closer to more people than ever before.16 Nationwide, more than 17 million people live within one mile of at least one oil or gas well.17 Encroachment of oil and gas extraction sites into residential communities leaves a large and lasting source of air pollution.
Every stage of oil and gas extraction activities has been associated with the emission of air pollutants. Air pollutants are emitted from extracted oil and gas, produced water, drill cuttings, drilling muds, hydraulic fracturing fluids, and flares, as well as from the diesel engines used to power trucks, drill rigs, and hydraulic fracturing equipment. These air pollutants include fine particulate matter and hazardous air pollutants, as well as nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds.18,19
Nitrogen oxides combine with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight and heat to form ground-level ozone, a potent air pollutant that stunts the growth of children’s lungs, damages lung tissue, and reduces every person’s lung function, making it harder for adults with COPD and children with asthma to breathe.20
Oil and gas operations are a major contributor to regional ozone pollution in Colorado.21 Human health risk assessments in Colorado indicate increased risks of respiratory effects for people living nearest to oil and gas extraction sites.22, 23, 24 EPA scientists estimate that fine particulate matter and ozone-related premature deaths attributable to oil and gas extraction activities will reach 1,970 per year in the United States, with the population in Colorado’s Denver Julesburg Basin and New Mexico’s Permian Basin experiencing some of the highest rates. Additionally, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, fine particulate matter, and hazardous air pollutants emissions are especially abundant at compressor stations, which keep oil and gas flowing through long-distance pipelines.26
My truck with water hauling tank in front of two of Encana/Ovintiv’s 13 frac compressors installed above Rosebud, Alberta (these two invasive noise-makers are about 900 metres from my home, which is in the valley bottom).
Encana put a straw bale wall around two sides of the compressors as a PR stunt to con citizens into believing the company was mitigating its non-compliant noise (Encana’s study showed non compliant noise levels which AER altered to make them compliant and to allow the abuse to continue, year after year after year). The company’s noise consultant told me the noise just rolled over the flammable wall; Encana took it down it after international media ridiculed it.
One of the worst frac health impacts to me (after the incredibly painful caustic burns to my skin and eyes from bathing in my frac’d well water) has been dramatically increased difficulty breathing, which makes everything more challenging, notably a senior alone hauling water (moving the water tank in and out of my truck is a near impossible chore that I dread).
I used to love windows open at night in summer, for “fresh” air, to cool the house down without wasting energy and to wake to birdsong. Medical experts advised me to always keep my windows closed at night because frac pollutants are much worse then. I live with suffocating heat instead.
We now know that oil and gas extraction activities (fracking) contaminate the air we all depend on and may make people sick. The impacts of fracking on human health are well-documented in the “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating the Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction),” published in 2019 by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York. (New York State has successfully banned fracking.) That report, which summarizes more than 1,700 peer-reviewed studies and investigative reports, found “no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health.”27
As the COVID-19 public health crisis continues to unfold across the United States and around the world, the association of air pollution and poor clinical outcomes from novel coronavirus infections is becoming increasingly apparent.6
Air Pollution and Coronavirus: A Dangerous Combination
It is clear that all around the United States, Americans suffer chronic disease and early death from breathing air pollution. Equally clear is that those living in proximity and inhaling the chemical pollution produced at every point of oil and gas operations are also at higher risk of experiencing adverse health impacts. The impairment of respiratory tract defenses and reduced lung function arising from long-term exposure to air pollution increase the risk of contracting coronavirus and developing complications from it, especially in people suffering from chronic medical conditions.
This report examines the possibility that the invisible particles and vapors coming from oil and gas production sites, by increasing the pollution burden on the respiratory system of local residents, increases their vulnerability to the novel coronavirus. If this is the case, they are a dangerous and deadly combination.
Discussion of Findings
These results indicate that the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are higher than would be expected in some counties with active oil and gas production sites, but not in others. While these results are inconclusive, the observation that more COVID-19 deaths were observed than expected in the three Colorado counties located in the Denver Julesburg Basin could support hypothesis generation for further study. Those three counties – Adams, Broomfield, and Weld – experienced the bulk of the oil and gas development that occurred in Colorado in 2020. The potential for exposure to air pollutants associated with oil and gas development is highest while the well site is being developed and extraction is taking place (e.g. drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and flowback).29.30
Oil and gas production sites are a major contributor to air pollution31 and, as is observed above, emerging studies indicate that exposure to air pollution could increase COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. However, it is not possible in this type of study to isolate the role in COVID-related morbidity and mortality of air pollution from oil and gas sites, relative to other major sources of air pollution. Other major air pollution sources in the counties we evaluated include wildfires and traffic. For example, numerous hazardous air quality alerts due to particulate matter in wildfire smoke were issued in Garfield, Adams, Broomfield, and Weld counties in the summer and fall of 2020. Traffic is a significant source of both particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide emissions. Additionally, many factors other than air pollution exposure could influence the transmission and/or severity of COVID-19 in these counties, including compliance with COVID-19 restrictions (e.g. social distancing and mask-wearing) and prevalence of co-morbidities such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity, as well as proportions of high-risk essential worker and residential populations, such as meat-packing workers, prisoners, and nursing home residents. Further investigations using individual-level data on COVID-19 morbidity and mortality and exposures to air pollution from each of these sources would be necessary to determine if air pollution from oil and gas production sites were exacerbating COVID-19. Additionally, co-morbidities, age, vulnerability to COVID-19 exposure, and other individual characteristics would need to be included in future studies.
This study asks whether living in an area with active oil and gas extraction operations increases a person’s risk of getting, or dying from, COVID-19. The question is an important one, yet this study does not pretend to generate definitive answers. Rather, it constitutes only a first step in that inquiry, one that generates hypotheses that we hope will be pursued in future research.
Based on the data that we reviewed, it is unclear whether oil and gas operations are affecting COVID-19 transmission, morbidity, and mortality in Colorado and New Mexico. That being said, evidence is emerging that air pollution increases the risk of getting a respiratory virus like COVID-19 and of experiencing a bad outcome, such as hospitalization or death. For that reason, reducing all sources of air pollution is a good strategy in protecting people from COVID-19. To that end we offer the following recommendations:
• As oil and gas operations add to the cumulative air pollution burden in an airshed, all available steps should be taken to reduce pollution from those sources.
• Unlike some other air pollution sources, like wildfires, oil and gas pollutant emissions are something that can be controlled in the relatively short term. This makes it appropriate to focus efforts on reducing those emissions, whether they derive from leaks, flaring, blowdowns and other deliberate releases, or other causes related to oil and gas operations.
• Further research should be pursued to isolate and quantify the role played by oil and gas operations in contributing to nearby residents’ vulnerability to disease and deaths associated with COVID-19. We suggest that individual-level data on COVID-19 exposure, morbidity and mortality as well as co-morbidities, age, and other individual characteristics be among the questions to be explored.
Footnotes in the complete report.
Refer also to:
Frac’ing takes our eyesight too? New study: Air pollution linked to higher risk of irreversible sight loss
Vile: Job killers Ovintiv (American, previously Encana) and Cenovus (previously Encana) get pandemic relief, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (and help spread COVID-19 from frac fields to communities?)
Covid-19 killing oil workers at unparalleled pace in Mexico: Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) reported 202 employees and 5 contractors died so far.
Are Covid-19 fatalities a measure of the oil & gas industry’s killing power? More and more studies prove how deadly & dishonest the industry is. Message to CAPP & AER: It’s not “odours” killing us, it’s pollution, including nitrogen dioxide.
New research on Covid-19: Are you and your loved ones frac’d? Air pollution linked to 15 percent higher coronavirus death rates
Covid-19: Economy-wrecker Steve Harper create this conniving Kenney War Room press release? Mighty evil conning Albertans during a pandemic. Shut the frac’ing lying room down, transfer the $100 million plus to health care.
BC’s Site C Dam: Overtime pay to lure in workers? With free temperature checks and 150 rooms reserved for quarantine? No details on how covid-19 asymptomatic workers will be identified or how many families will be infected when workers head home.
2015: Toxic taint: Tests in Alberta industrial heartland reveal air-quality concerns
2013: Air Pollution and Cancer Spikes linked in Alberta; Alberta’s Oil Legacy: Bad Air and Rare Cancers, Sickening carcinogens now saturate Industrial Heartland, study finds