*UPDATE II* Public Health and Hydraulic Fracturing: A Review of the Data

UPDATE II (9:53 am ET, 10/26/2012): New data released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that injuries in the oil and natural gas industry declined in 2011 by an amazing 33 percent — from a rate of 1.2 to 0.8 for every 100 workers. A story from E&E News (subs. req’d) points out that the injury rate for oil and gas extraction (and indeed for the entire mining industry) is also “below the national incidence rate of 3.5 cases per 100 workers.”

UPDATE (10:21 am ET, 5/17/2012): NPR has been running a series of stories about the alleged horrors of hydraulic fracturing, relying mostly on anecdotal reports about health impacts to say there “isn’t an answer” to questions about whether the wells are emitting hazardous levels of pollutants (news flash: there is an answer, it’s just not convenient to folks who want to write scary stories.) Nonetheless, one of NPR’s segments actually let the cat out of the bag, specifically in reference to the town of Dish, TX (which was featured in Gasland and was also where Dr. Al Armendariz made his infamous “crucify” comments). From NPR (emphasis added):

Quite a few of the 225 people who live in Dish, Texas, think the nation’s natural gas boom is making them sick.

They blame the chemicals used in gas production for health problems ranging from nosebleeds to cancer.

And the mayor of Dish, Bill Sciscoe, has a message for people who live in places where gas drilling is about to start: “Run. Run as fast as you can. Grab up your family and your belongings, and get out.”

But scientists say it’s just not clear whether pollutants from gas wells are hurting people in Dish or anywhere else. What is clear, they say, is that the evidence the town has presented so far doesn’t have much scientific heft.

It’s truly amazing the kinds of conclusions one will reach when relying on scientific facts.

Original post from April 18, 2012

We’ve all seen the frightening headlines and read about so-called “experts” linking any number of negative health impacts to oil and gas development, specifically hydraulic fracturing. But what’s more telling about these allegations is what they are missing, namely: a basis in fact.

The claims have also made us wonder: If suggestions about negative health impacts were true, wouldn’t the men and women who are working in the industry – many as long as 60 to 70 hours per week, year round – be suffering from some of the worst health conditions? After all, if hydraulic fracturing or shale development as a whole were emitting dangerous levels of pollutants, then those working on the well pads day in and day out would be more exposed than anyone else. Right?

As it turns out, the facts tell a completely different story than what we’ve read in the newspapers or heard from opponents of shale. And to clear the air, we’ve done the research so you don’t have to. All of the information that follows, we should point out, is not based on anecdotal horror stories or unverifiable reports, but rather easily accessible data via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). No smoke and mirrors, no secret decoder rings, just the facts.

According to the BLS:

  • Among the industries with the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, oil and gas extraction is not even in the top 25. Veterinary services, soft drink manufacturing, hospitals, pet and pet supplies stores, and ship building all register higher injury and illness rates than oil and gas.
  • In terms of injuries specifically, the oil and gas industry is quite safe. In fact, the national injury incidence rate average is three times higher than the rate for oil and gas extraction specifically.
  • As for illnesses specifically, oil and gas operations register comparatively few total cases. Here is a list of just a few industries that record more total illnesses than oil and natural gas: ice cream and frozen food manufacturing, wineries, bottling water, book publishers, tortilla manufacturing, recyclable material merchant wholesalers, boat dealers, novelty and souvenir stores, radio and television broadcasting, investment banking, accounting and tax preparation, and real estate. Once again, oil and gas operations don’t even come close to being in the top 25 in terms of industries with the highest rates of illnesses.
  • And those working in oil and natural gas development aren’t taking much time off, either. The BLS compiled a list of industries with the highest rates of injuries and illnesses requiring days off from work, and – lo and behold – oil and gas extraction didn’t make the list.

This data also matches the conclusions of scientific research for specific areas across the country, including for two of the largest shale-producing areas in the country.

An air quality report for northeastern Pennsylvania, which was issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” And although the report’s scope did not include an assessment of longer-term impacts, it did conduct air sampling for carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone. The sampling “did not detect concentrations above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.” A DEP report issued two months earlier for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusions.

In addition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has conducted extensive air monitoring for the Barnett Shale in North Texas. Here’s what TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw said of TCEQ’s findings:

“After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.”

In addition, a report issued by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) collected blood and urine samples from residents in and around the town of DISH, which is located over the Barnett Shale. Here’s what the report concluded:

“Although a number of VOCs were detected in some of the blood samples, the pattern of VOC values was not consistent with a community-wide exposure to airborne contaminants, such as those that might be associated with natural gas drilling operations.”

DSHS concluded that the sources of exposure were likely tobacco (all those who recorded elevated levels of benzene were smokers); public drinking water systems, which include disinfectant byproducts; and common consumer products such as cleaners and lubricants. DSHS did note some limitations (including the fact that VOCs only stay in the body for a relatively short period of time), but nonetheless concluded that their assessment “did not indicate that community-wide exposures from gas wells or compressor stations were occurring in the sample population.”

A separate assessment of the Barnett Shale area took an in-depth look at health statistics, specifically in Denton County, Texas. The researchers concluded that “even as natural gas development expanded significantly in the area of the past several years, key indicators of health improved across every major category during those times.” The researchers also made this important observation:

“Health records indicate that while production increased, fewer residents were diagnosed with serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory disease, strokes, and heart disease. This improvement occurred even as the population of residents age 65 or older increased by over 13,000, a significant uptick for any population segment.”

Bottom line: It’s easy to claim that any sort of nearby business or industrial activity – be it oil and gas, the construction of an apartment complex, or the opening of a new hardware store – has correlated with an increase in nosebleeds, headaches, or any other ailment. But that doesn’t mean such accusations are based in fact. More importantly, we’re not doing any justice to those suffering from those ailments – and we’re certainly not solving any problems – if we misallocate blame and focus attention on activities that are not responsible, merely because it’s convenient to do so.


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