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At every stage of shale gas development (SGD), emissions that may affect human health are released into the air. If you live within a 3-mile radius of any type of SGD operations, you may be particularly affected by air pollution. After methane and CO2 (the two largest components), emissions from SGD facilities are composed primarily of the following toxic chemicals:

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

  • Carbon monoxide (CO)

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (e.g., BTEX and formaldehyde)

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5)

Many of these are hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), air toxics that are known carcinogens and that can cause other serious health impacts. HAPs have been identified in nearly every stage of SGD, from drilling to storage:

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Image of courtesy Garcia-Gonzales, D. A., Shonkoff, S. B. C., Hays, J., Jerrett, M., Annual Review of Public Health

The toxic effect from high exposures to these chemicals is determined by the amounts present, which can vary from facility to facility. Continuous monitoring of emissions helps us understand the variability of exposure levels. As such, EHP has developed the HealthWatch model, which uses the tools described below to help communities better understand the long-term PM2.5 and tVOC (total VOCs) exposures for homes near SGD facilities. More information about the HealthWatch model can be viewed here.

How Air Pollution Affects You

People who are exposed to high levels  of polluted air or chronically exposed to lower amounts from SGD can experience a variety of health effects. Vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, pregnant individuals, and those with pre-existing conditions are at even greater risk for negative health impacts.

Researchers report that some health problems associated with breathing contaminated air can happen immediately after exposure, or in some cases, exposure can cause long-term effects such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and poor birth outcomes. 

The table below lists the major categories of chemical air toxins present at SGD facilities along with some of their known health effects as cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

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* Chart does not include additional health effects occurring with higher-level occupational exposures. For more information about occupational exposures for industry workers, check out the industry worker page.

Characteristics of SGD Air Pollution

Acute symptoms from exposure to SGD emissions may come and go as emissions levels may be sporadic or episodic. In addition, emissions tend to be invisible to the naked eye, therefore nearby infrastructure could be emitting something that cannot be seen. Wind direction and topography also impact how air pollution is carried. Wind will carry emission plumes, and valleys may concentrate them. Lastly, it is important to note how many different facilities and infrastructure are near you as you may be exposed to a combination of these emissions. See Protecting Your Health for more information.

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Image courtesy of Earthworks

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Measuring Air Pollution

If you live near SGD activities and are concerned about your air quality, there are ways to monitor potential air pollution in your environment. The graphic below shows the daily episodic variation in particulate matter next to a power plant in New York. 

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Below are a few lower-cost monitors that can be used to continuously monitor air pollution and collect data, which can be used to better understand exposures.

Fine Particulate Monitoring – PurpleAir PM2.5 Sensor 

• Low-cost PM2.5 sensors widely used around the world 
• Continuous monitoring linked to mapping tool with real-time access to data 
• Remote online accessibility 
• Wi-Fi and SD card versions  

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Short-term VOC Sampling 

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Summa Canister and Chemical Badges 

  • Determines the concentration of specific VOCs in the air at a given time 

  • 24-hour air sampling in a given location 

  • Summa canisters and badges are sent to the ALS lab for analysis identification of specific VOCs

  • Weather conditions are an important factor when performing chemical sampling 

See EHP’s video tutorial, which further explains how to use Summa canisters and badges. 

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