Hazardous Air Pollutants Detected Near Fracking Sites by Lisa Song, December 03, 2012, Bloomberg Businessweek
First Study of Its Kind Detects 44 Hazardous Air Pollutants at Gas Drilling Sites, With gas wells in some states being drilled near schools and homes, scientists see a need for better chemical disclosure laws and follow-up research by Lisa Song, December 3, 2012, InsideClimate News
But a new study reports that a set of chemicals called non-methane hydrocarbons, or NMHCs, is found in the air near drilling sites even when fracking isn’t in progress. According to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, more than 50 NMHCs were found near gas wells in rural Colorado, including 35 that affect the brain and nervous system. Some were detected at levels high enough to potentially harm children who are exposed to them before birth. The authors say the source of the chemicals is likely a mix of the raw gas that is vented from the wells and emissions from industrial equipment used during the gas production process. The paper cites two other recent studies on NMHCs near gas drilling sites in Colorado. But the new study was conducted over a longer period of time and tested for more chemicals than those studies did. “To our knowledge, no study of this kind has been published to date,” the authors wrote.
Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas drillers in the American West, said the TEDX scientists have produced “a study that clearly doesn’t come up with the results they’re trying to show.” Sgamma questioned the scientists’ qualifications, as well as the quality of the journal that published their findings. “This was clearly not a well-thought out and well peer-reviewed study,” she said. But Robert Jackson, a professor of energy and environmental studies at Duke University who was not involved in the research, said the study is valuable because it shows that more study is needed about how drilling affects communities near gas fields. “There’s the question of whether there are long-term health effects,” he said. “It warrants a follow-up [health] study.” Many residents of the sparsely populated area live within a mile of active wells. As gas drilling expands throughout the nation, production is moving closer to populated areas, with wells in some states now being drilled within a few hundred feet of schools and homes.
“We’ve been overlooking these non-methane hydrocarbons until now,” said Theo Colborn, president of TEDX and the paper’s lead author. “They’ve been measured before in cities … otherwise, no one has looked at [them] as related to natural gas drilling in rural areas.” Non-methane hydrocarbons are emitted by industrial equipment and also by unprocessed natural gas. When an operator drills a new well, most of the raw gas that flows out of the ground is methane—the target compound that’s collected and sold. The gas also contains water and dozens of NMHCs, including the carcinogen benzene. On average, NMHCs account for 18 percent of the unprocessed gas and are released into the air at various stages of production. John Starck, an engineer and president of EGL Resources, a Texas oil and gas company, said very little raw gas escapes during the initial drilling phase, because the gas-bearing rock is so impermeable. Once the well has been fracked, the quantities of NMHCs released would be on the order of parts per thousand or parts per million, unless there is a leak, he said. The NMHCs in the study were detected at levels of parts per million, parts per billion and parts per trillion, but the endocrine system is so sensitive that even tiny doses can lead to large health effects. Federal safety standards rarely consider the impacts of low dosage testing, an omission that scientists say should be addressed. The study’s authors detected thirty NMHCs that affect the endocrine system. Several belong to a class of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and were detected at levels that other scientists have found are high enough to impact child development. In those studies, clinical researchers gave pregnant women living in cities personal air monitors, then tracked their children’s development. Women exposed to a certain level of PAHs were more likely to have children with lower birth weight and lower IQ scores.
One chemical found at surprisingly high levels was methylene chloride, a common laboratory solvent. It’s not a component of raw gas and doesn’t appear on any of the public disclosure forms of chemicals used during drilling and fracking. “However, residents and gas field workers have reported that methylene chloride is stored on well pads for cleaning purposes,” the authors wrote. Robert Howarth, a Cornell University scientist who wasn’t involved in the study, said the presence of methylene chloride points to a need for better chemical disclosure laws. “Methylene chloride is a surprise…We need a lot more information on what’s used at drilling sites overall.” While drilling companies are required to disclose many of the chemicals used for fracking, they are usually allowed to keep proprietary chemicals secret. Drilling and cleaning compounds are rarely, if ever, subject to public disclosure. Sgamma, the industry representative, said she was not aware of methylene chloride being used on well pads. She said the samples were probably contaminated in the lab. Kwiatkowski said TEDX considered that possibility and ran blank samples to test for contamination. They didn’t find methylene chloride in the blanks, but found it “over and over again” in the collected air samples.
The TEDX study was inspired by years of complaints about headaches and respiratory problems the researchers had heard from people living near gas wells. Many of the symptoms began the moment drilling started, long before the wells were fracked, Kwiatkowski said. … The data showed a major spike in chemical concentrations after the first 16 wells were drilled, but not after fracking. The increase was significant when compared with the baseline samples collected before the drilling, as well as samples from most of the year after drilling stopped. Colborn said that suggests the increased emissions are linked to the raw gas released from drilling—but she said there’s no way to tell for sure, because they couldn’t directly sample emissions from the well pad. Colborn said TEDX and other scientists are already making plans for a follow-up study to chemically fingerprint the source of the pollutants. Jackson, the Duke University scientist, said the paper hasn’t convinced him that the increased emissions are directly tied to the well pad it studied instead of the combined effect of the region’s natural gas operations. He said the evidence is weak because the spikes occurred only during the middle two months of the five-month drilling period, and because the emissions could have originated from the 130 other wells in the region. There’s no question the study “is documenting air quality in that valley,” he said, “and that’s still valuable,” especially when it comes to health implications for local residents.
The TEDX study cites two recent studies with similar research goals—a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) from the University of Colorado School of Public Health and a pilot study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The HIA was commissioned in 2010 to examine the potential health affects of a pending gas drilling project in Garfield County, the same county Colborn’s group examined, but the county commissioners cut its funding before it could be completed. A draft of the HIA from Feb. 2011 cited a 2007 air monitoring report that identified oil and natural gas production as the largest contributor of benzene in Garfield County. The NOAA study, published in February by the Journal of Geophysical Research,found that oil and gas operations released more methane and benzene than previously thought. It used a chemical fingerprint to pinpoint drilling operations as the source of the contaminants, but it examined far fewer non-methane hydrocarbons than the TEDX paper.
Sgamma also questioned the researchers’ decision to publish the paper inHuman and Ecological Risk Assessment, which she said is not a “typical” destination for air quality studies. Kwiatkowski said they chose the journal because they wanted it to reach scientists who study risk assessment. Barry L. Johnson, the journal’s editor-in-chief for the past 12 years, said the publication’s first priority is the quality of the science in the manuscripts it receives. He said it has published papers written by industry researchers and that industry scientists serve on the journal’s board. Johnson has worked for the EPA and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and is an adjunct professor of public health and environmental policy at Emory University. The TEDX paper was processed like any other study, Johnson said. It was sent to two scientists for peer review, both of whom have published widely on issues of air quality. The reviewers’ names are kept private, he said, because his journal operates under a double-blind review system, where authors and peer reviewers are unaware of each others’ identities in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Johnson said his publication “deemed the [TEDX] paper, as we have deemed others dealing with air quality, as being relevant to the aim, purpose and scope of our journal.” He said that Sgamma is welcome to submit formal comments on the paper. The TEDX study is “clearly labeled and presented as an exploratory study,” he said. “It has strengths and limitations—I don’t know of any studies that don’t. That’s just how science works … and this may contribute towards a better understanding of what’s happening around gas operations.” [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to: LISTEN: Coughing, Headaches, Fatigue: Is Fracking to Blame?