These health effects have affected communities in states with high oil and gas production, as well as states with little or no gas activity, underscoring the need for comprehensive regulatory action to protect Americans from pollutants from this sector.
Despite global efforts to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, oil and gas (O&G) production is near record levels in the United States, leaving health experts concerned about what the growth of O&G means for air quality and human health. While there is extensive research on the climate impacts of methane from O&G – a major contributor to air pollution – some studies have measured the health effects of air pollution generated by O&G activity.
A new study led by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment (UNC-IE), the PSE Health Energy Fund, and the Environmental Defense Fund fills this gap.
Published in the journal Environmental Research: HealthThe study found that air pollution from the oil and gas sector in the United States has significant negative effects on air quality, human health, and health costs.
The results showed that nitrogen oxide pollutants (NO2), particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) of oil and gas production in the United States contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the United States in 2016. Taking factors associated with respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, outcomes Adverse pregnancy, other health challenges, and oil and gas production were responsible for $77 billion in annual health costs. Comparatively speaking, this total is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
These influences were largely concentrated in regions with significant oil and gas production, such as southwestern Pennsylvania, Texas, and eastern Colorado. But the health effects also extended to densely populated cities with little or no gaseous activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Orlando.
The study findings suggest that policies to reduce gas, oil, and gas emissions, such as upcoming methane regulations from the EPA, may produce immediate and significant air quality benefits to human health along with significant climate benefits. The researchers urge policymakers to consider these “co-benefits” in future emissions reduction strategies. They also stress that strategies that focus on end-of-pipe pollution controls during combustion—as in power plants, vehicles, buildings, and industry—address only part of the problem.
“These intrinsic impacts from oil and gas production show that there are significant consequences across the full life cycle of oil and gas, from ‘well to wheel’, ‘well to power plant’ and ‘well to furnace,’ according to corresponding study author Jonathan Bonocour, associate professor at Environmental Health at BUSPH.” Health impacts are not only from oil and gas combustion. For energy, air quality and decarbonization policies to successfully protect health, health impacts must be integrated across this full life cycle.”
The five states with the highest impact from oil and gas pollution were Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma and Louisiana and those with the most oil and gas activity. However, Illinois and New York – states that produce very little oil and gas – still landed at 6y and 8y splatter.
“The fact that air pollution and its health impacts cross state boundaries indicates that there is a strong need for regional to national coordination,” says study senior author Saravanan Arunachalam, research professor at UNC-IE. “The states with the highest emissions are not necessarily the states with the highest health risks due to these emissions, although Texas ranks first in both.”
A novelty in this modeling framework is the inclusion of the health effects of NO2and the use of an advanced model that better captures the chemistry of emissions from the oil and gas sector. Of the three pollutants, nitrogen dioxide was the largest contributor to the overall health effects, producing 37 percent of these effects, followed by ozone at 35 percent, and particulate matter at 28 percent. The vast majority of these effects are related to mortality. NO2 contributes to the formation of PM2.5 and ozone, so strategies to reduce NO2 from O&G can be effective in reducing health effects. State regulations addressing nitrogen dioxide emissions from the oil and gas sector can help mitigate cases of childhood asthma for communities living near sources of emissions, and provide secondary health benefits to ozone and PM2.5 in windward regions.
“Reducing oil and gas emissions is one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to reduce methane and other air pollutants, which improves air quality, protects public health and slows climate change,” says study co-author Ananya Roy, chief health scientist at EDF. “It is critically important. That the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthen proposed methane rules for oil and gas and end them as quickly as possible. These proposed rules should build on the state’s pioneering approaches in Colorado and New Mexico and go further to end pollution from the practice of routine incineration.”
The authors say that future studies should focus on learning more about the health effects across the full life cycle of oil and natural gas production, as well as the benefits of additional oil and gas pollution control strategies.
“There are technologies and strategies for reducing methane leaks, emissions from compression plants, or emissions from other sources, such as ponds and dryers,” Bonokur says. “Each of these strategies will have different effects on the levels of different pollutants that are emitted.”
Arunachalam notes that there is also more work to be done to determine the health effects of emissions not examined in the study, such as benzene and formaldehyde. “Exposure to these pollutants detected near oil and gas wells can lead to cancer and many other adverse health effects, and measuring them will show higher public health benefits for controlling emissions from this sector.”