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Shale Gas Development and Covid-19: A Double Threat to the Elderly

The oil and gas industry continues to disrupt communities across America and globally. For many, specifically at-risk groups like the elderly, shale gas development is a direct threat to personal health. In 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic has intensified these threats.

Because shale gas development involves heavy machinery use and excessive diesel truck traffic, air pollutants near these sites can be dangerously high, especially during the initial drilling of wells. These pollutants include particulate matter (PM), which is known to cause health effects such as cardiovascular disease, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), and stroke. During fracking, drillers also use chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). More than 55 of these compounds are known or suspected to cause cancer. Some affect the respiratory system.

Why Worry About PM2.5?

PM consists of a mixture of solid and liquid particles—dust, dirt, soot, and smoke are familiar examples—and can exist in various sizes from visible to the naked eye to microscopic. The smaller forms of PM are often the most dangerous, as they can easily be inhaled into the lungs. PM2.5 (named for its 2.5 or smaller microns in size, which is 30 times smaller in width than a strand of hair) is associated with the shale gas industry. Pollutants at this size can be carried into the bloodstream and may also enter into the inner tissues of the lungs, which may explain why researchers have found a significant association between shale gas development and hospitalizations for pneumonia among the elderly.

The COVID-19 Connection

Elderly populations are more susceptible to infections for several reasons, including additional health issues (like diabetes or high blood pressure) and weaker immune systems. Because of these preexisting vulnerabilities, the pollutants created by shale gas development are particularly dangerous to this group, especially as COVID-19 continues to impact people—like Judy Kelly of Broomfield, Colorado—worldwide.

image courtesy of Amelia Bates, Grist

People aged 60 years and over and those with underlying medical problems are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. For those whose lung health has already been weakened, as by shale gas pollutants, a COVID-19 diagnosis is more likely to lead to death.

With more than 15 million people already testing positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. and deaths set to surpass 300,000 in December 2020, stay-at-home orders have been instituted in cities and states nationwide. For some, home has been a safe haven during the pandemic. For others, including the 12.6 million people in America living within just a half-mile of active oil and gas wells, staying home comes with its own risks.

A study published in June 2020 found that PM2.5 was detectable up to six miles downwind from shale gas wells, and possibly further. As the number of gas wells continues to grow across America’s landscape, so does the number of individuals with associated health impacts like asthma, lung infections, and more.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

While COVID-19 continues to impact real people around the globe, and as the oil and gas industry continues to permeate our communities, you can take steps to protect your health and the health of your loved ones.

Monitor your indoor and local air quality

Knowing when concentrations of pollutants spike can help you learn when to stay indoors to avoid outdoor pollution and determine what areas of your home may contain high levels of pollutants.

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

Keep your home as free of dust as possible since harmful gases and particles can adhere to dust particles.

Clean or dust using damp, disposable cloths to reduce the chance that contaminants will end up back in your air. Work from the top down.

Vacuum rather than sweep with a broom to reduce airborne particles. Vacuum at least once a week and use a HEPA filter in your vacuum to remove as many particles from the air as possible.

Avoid bringing contaminated dirt and dust into your home by removing shoes, coats, and hats when you come indoors. Ask guests to do the same.

Seek mental health treatment, if needed

Keep in mind that you do not need to deal with this on your own. You may find it helpful to work with a licensed mental health professional to help develop strategies to deal with the stress of air pollution or quarantine.

Contact your elected officials and local representatives to demand better rules and regulations on industries that pollute the air

COVID-19 forced governments to act. The same sense of urgency needs to be applied to tackling air pollution, a health problem with a clear and actionable solution. For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at info@environmentalhealthproject.org.