The answer—in many of the areas monitored for the peer-reviewed study, published today in the journal Environmental Health—is “potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures” that can make people feel ill and raise their risk of getting cancer.
“The implications for health effects are just enormous,” said David O. Carpenter, the paper’s senior author and director of the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment.
The study monitored air at locations in five states: Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.
In 40 percent of the air samples, laboratory tests found benzene, formaldehyde, or other toxic substances associated with oil and gas production that were above levels the federal government considers safe for brief or longer-term exposure. Far above, in some cases.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America referred questions about the study to Energy in Depth, an outreach campaign it launched in 2009. Energy in Depth spokeswoman Katie Brown criticized the involvement of Global Community Monitor, the nonprofit that had trained DeTurck and other volunteers to gather the samples.
“It’s difficult to see how Global Community Monitor, a group that dubiously claims no amount of regulation will ever make fracking safe, could make a constructive contribution within the scientific community,” Brown said by email.
The study comes amid a growing body of research suggesting that the country’s ballooning oil and gas production—often next to homes and schools—could be endangering the health of people living or working nearby. For the past 18 months, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News have been investigating this topic, focusing mainly on the Eagle Ford Shale formation of south Texas.
A study published in Environmental Health Studies in September found that Pennsylvania residents living less than two-thirds of a mile from natural gas wells were much more likely to report skin and upper-respiratory problems than people living farther away.
A Colorado School of Public Health analysis published in April found 30 percent more congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers in parts of that state with lots of gas wells than in babies born to mothers with no wells within ten miles of their homes.
And a 2013 study done for the state of West Virginia found benzene, a carcinogen, above levels considered safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry near four of seven gas-well pads where air was sampled.
These findings come after years of little information beyond citizen complaints and industry reassurances. Scientists say the research is far from complete and more is urgently needed. (Related: “Health Questions Key to New York Fracking Decision, But Answers Scarce”)
Researchers associated with the September and April studies, for instance, noted that their findings don’t prove that gas production caused the health problems but instead flag a potential link that needs further investigation.
“Research is just now beginning really to be done,” said Michael McCawley, interim chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences and author of the 2013 study for that state.
“Part of the problem seems to be a concerted effort, up until recently, to avoid asking the question,” said environmental physician Bernard Goldstein, a faculty emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh who served as an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official during the Reagan Administration.