Imagine this: You suffer from a health issue – nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, or even a more serious complication such as asthma – and you suspect this issue has something to do with a nearby shale gas well. You make a complaint to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), but you receive an unsatisfactory answer. They say the air quality is fine. What’s going on?
When monitoring fails to detect a problem
The DEP relies on air quality monitoring to determine whether too much pollution is coming from shale gas operations. The DEP does some of its own monitoring but also relies heavily on the industry to provide much of the emissions data.
When the DEP or the industry monitors emissions from shale gas development, it typically reports these emissions averaged out over 24-hour periods. But emissions from such sources are not consistent. Equipment is used for differing lengths of time to drill and frack wells. Truck traffic comes and goes. Gas is periodically vented to release pressure. Even the weather and time of day can have an impact on the concentration of emissions.
Each phase of shale gas development can release air pollution at various amounts for different lengths of time, sometimes in peaks. But when emissions are averaged out over 24-hour periods, peaks can easily be smoothed out. It’s as though they never existed in the first place.
What are spikes or peaks?
Emissions from shale gas development are released sporadically, not at a constant rate. The periods in which emissions are higher are referred to as spikes or peaks. These highs in emissions can trigger your health problems or make them worse.
If your health symptoms seem to come and go, you may be exposed to spikes or peaks in harmful emissions. Shale gas development releases small particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other harmful toxics into the air at every step in the process. These emissions can be breathed in, ingested in water, or absorbed through the skin.
What are potential health symptoms that may be caused by spikes or peaks?
Spikes in emissions can last for up to half a day, but studies show that even a few minutes of exposure can trigger health symptoms. David Brown, a public heath toxicologist with EHP, noted that when peak emissions occur, people near shale gas development face extreme exposure.
Brown also says that some of the health effects being reported around fracking sites are associated with respiratory diseases, such as asthma in children and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) attacks. A 2018 study showed that ground level ozone, which occurs when shale gas emissions combine with sunlight, can affect lung health, aggravate asthma (especially in children), and potentially cause damage to lung tissue.
The most common health problems that people who live close to fracking operations in southwestern Pennsylvania have reported to EHP are respiratory problems, headaches, skin rashes, and nausea.
What can you do to protect yourself?
In order to reduce your risk of health problems from emissions peaks, you can:
- 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
- Remove avoidable indoor air pollutants like smoke and dust
- Keep a health symptom diary
- Join the Health Effects Registry and get your health symptoms on record
For assistance or more information, please contact EHP at 724-260-5504 or by email at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org.
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.