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Respiratory Hazards and Your Health

How do respiratory hazards affect us?

Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental risks to health, often resulting in premature death. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), respiratory hazards that threaten our health can exist in various forms, such as gases, vapors, dusts, mists, fumes, smoke, sprays, and fog. When inhaled, these chemicals can bypass our body’s protective mechanisms, enter the deep lung, and cross into our circulatory system, exerting their effects along the way. Some hazards, like carbon monoxide, are short-acting, which means they work quickly and can detrimentally affect one’s health within minutes. Others, like formaldehyde, are long-acting and have been shown to cause long-term health impacts, such as cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. For a full list of chemical carcinogens, visit the National Cancer Institute or explore PubMed.

What are the most common air pollutants?

Some of the most commonly known air pollutants as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are particulate matter (often referred to as “particle pollution” or “PM”), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These pollutants can harm human health and the environment, and all of these are released or formed during shale gas development processes.

Why are VOCs of concern?

According to the EPA, the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are a varied group of gaseous chemicals that range from those having no known health effects to those known to be highly toxic. Unlike particulate matter, there is currently no national ambient air quality standard for total VOCs in the United States. This is concerning because, while these chemicals contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which itself is linked to a wide range of health effects, they can also elicit harmful health effects if inhaled in their native state. Associated health effects include aggravated asthma and increased risk of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and premature death. Visit PubMed to explore research on the effects of VOCs on health.

In addition to contributing to the formation of ozone, VOC emissions from shale gas operations include hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) such as benzene, ethylbenzene, and n-hexane. These are known to directly affect human health. HAPs include a standard list of chemicals identified by the U.S. EPA, which are known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health effects, including birth defects. In order to better understand whether there may be an association between VOCs exposure and health impacts of residents, the table below shows some of the health effects of VOC exposure as reported by the EPA alongside health effects reported to EHP by residents living near shale gas development.

Health Effects from VOC Exposure

Sources: health effects from VOC exposure listed on EPA's ATSDR toxic substances portal and resident reported health effects obtained from EHP administered health surveys

How does air pollution affect us?

The American Lung Association reported that more than four in 10 Americans breathe unhealthy air, with people of color being three times as likely to live in the most polluted places. This exposure increases the overall likelihood that residents will experience health issues and premature death. Vulnerable populations—including children, pregnant individuals, the elderly, people with pre-existing diseases, and minority and low-income communities—are especially susceptible to poor health outcomes from exposure to air pollution.

The State of Global Air Report shows that air pollution is responsible for more than 6 million premature deaths each year from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and respiratory diseases. There are several studies surrounding the health impacts of long-term exposure to air pollution. One study suggests that long-term exposure to some air pollutants can increase the risk of emphysema, more so than smoking one pack of cigarettes per day. Other recent research shows air pollution can also negatively impact mental health. Fatigue, anxiety, and stress are among the top 10 complaints reported to EHP by residents living near shale gas facilities.

Image courtesy of the National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS)

How can I best protect myself and my family from air pollutants? Currently, many people are spending a lot of time working or studying from home. To better protect your health, stay informed and ensure that your indoor air quality is optimal. Here are several tips that can help:

  • Minimizing outdoor time on days when there is poor air quality. Air quality can be monitored using the EPA’s AirNow website or home air quality monitors.

  • Run a ventilation fan whenever you are using the kitchen or bathroom. If there isn’t a fan that vents to the outside, opening windows on good air quality days can help increase air circulation.

  • If you have a forced air system, change the filter according to the recommended schedule for the equipment.

  • Lead is hazardous when inhaled. If you believe you have lead paint in your home, your local or state government may offer testing services.

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. It is naturally occurring in many parts of the United States. Contact a radon testing and mitigation company to have your home tested.

  • Carbon monoxide detectors are recommended in any home with gas, oil, or wood fuel-burning appliances to prevent accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Winterizing your home may increase the efficiency of your heating or cooling system, but it also has the potential to increase the level of indoor air contaminants, such as radon, carbon monoxide, mold, and fine particles of lead paint. Consult a reputable weatherization company for recommendations on safe air-sealing procedures.

  • The use of some household solvents (such as detergents and other cleaning agents) may pose a health concern. Cleveland Clinic provides some safety tips around this.

  • A HEPA-approved air filter can help to decrease the particulate matter burden in the air. Some air purifiers such as the Austin Air HealthMate remove both PM2.5 and VOCs.

This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, under Cooperative Agreement Number UG4LM012347 with the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, Worcester. The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of shale 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.


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