Chances are you’ve already heard about methane at one time or another. Peat bogs, for example, give off a lot of methane. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, roughly 50 to 65 percent of global methane emissions are related to human activity.
In 2018, farm animals were responsible for something like 28 percent of methane emissions in the United States. Natural gas and petroleum systems gave off a comparable 28 percent and coal mining another 8 percent – meaning fossil fuels were responsible for more than a third of all methane released into the atmosphere in the U.S. in 2018.
Methane is the primary component of natural gas, the production of which has risen dramatically in the U.S. over the last decade. Most natural gas currently produced here is through shale gas development. Developers drill down a mile or more into the earth, and then up to 3.5 miles sideways, to crack open shale layers and release the gas. This process is also called fracking.
While cheaper energy is certainly enticing to consumers, shale gas development can be a very real threat to public health. Let’s take a look at the health risks for people living near shale gas activities, as well as how methane affects the planet as whole.
If You Live Near a Methane Source
If you live close to shale gas development – a well, a pipeline, a compressor station, an ethane plastics plant – you have a higher risk of experiencing poor health outcomes than if you lived elsewhere. Methane itself is likely not the cause of your problems. But other pollutants are typically found along with methane. These can have an impact on your health.
Along with methane, shale gas development releases measurable levels of toxic compounds, such as benzene, arsenic, formaldehyde, lead, and mercury. Shale gas facilities also emit fine and ultrafine particulate matter. Particulates are released any time fossil fuels are burned – as when shale gas is flared off during well completion or to release pipeline pressure at compressor stations. Diesel truck traffic also emits lots of particulates. At some shale gas facilities, pollutants have been tested at levels that exceed EPA safe air or drinking water standards.
These pollutants can raise your risk of experiencing all sorts of health issues, like skin rashes, headaches, and fatigue, to name a few. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can damage your heart, liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. More than fifty chemicals used during the fracking process are known or suspected to cause cancer. If you are exposed to them, your risk of getting cancer may go up.
Particulates can get into your lungs when you breathe and cause or worsen respiratory issues like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Exposure to pollution may also put you at higher risk of developing more severe symptoms from infectious lung diseases, like COVID-19.
What Methane Does to the Planet
While methane itself may or may not be causing your health issues, the fallout from methane that escapes into the atmosphere can wreak havoc on public health. Methane is a significant contributor to climate change. It’s up to 86 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than its more popular cousin, CO2. Methane is responsible for 25 percent of the human-produced warming we are experiencing today.
Higher levels of methane are terrible news for climate change and the resulting floods, fires, storms, beach erosion, and energy blackouts. Higher temperatures also make ozone (smog) worse and increase heat-related deaths. They impact food and water supplies, and lead to an increase in disease from mosquitos and ticks.
All of these environmental outcomes result in a public health crisis that stresses our families and communities, and taxes our health care workers and emergency responders.
What Can You Do?
There are a number of actions you can take to protect your health and that of your family members from methane and the pollutants that accompany it:
- Place a HEPA-certified air filter in your home
- Request air monitoring equipment from EHP that tracks pollutants inside and outside your home
- Pay attention to the weather and when it contributes to poor air quality, and close your windows or stay inside when conditions warrant
- Join the Health Effects Registry and get your health symptoms on record
- Report spills, safety violations, or accidents you see to the appropriate government authority
- Contact your local representative to demand better rules and regulations on industries that extract fossil fuels
- Go to the HealthFirstPa.org website and sign a letter telling your elected officials: "Protect the health of our families from Gas Industry Pollution!"
- Demand safe buffer zones between drilling sites and schools, playgrounds, streams, housing developments, and hospitals
- Become a proponent of alternative energies that can provide energy without releasing methane into the atmosphere
For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at 724-260-5504 or by email at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org, or visit EHP’s website.
The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.