Drilling Health Concerns and Research Covered at IOM Event

By Samantha L. Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, FracTracker & DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health department

Last week I attended the Institute of Medicine’s Workshop on The Health Impact Assessment of New Energy Sources: Shale Gas Extraction in Washington, DC. This was part of a larger research initiative to understand the potential health impacts of shale gas extraction as a whole. The meeting involved very balanced discussions among presenters and attendees, not on whether gas drilling should occur, but how it will impact health and how the effects can best be studied. For those of you who could not attend in person, here are some key points that were raised:

  • Dr. Aaron Wernham of Pew Charitable Trusts discussed the advantages of incorporating a Health Impact Assessment into the decision making process for drilling, highlighting an HIA’s ability to address local concerns and data gaps. For example, he mentioned that data has indicated there was a jump in syphilis rates in Ft. McMurray, Canada where drilling is heavy. Learn more about where HIA’s have been used in the U.S. here.
  • Traffic problems associated with drilling activity have been documented in many parts of the country, including Sublette County, WY. Learn more»
  • Dr. Charles Groat from the University of Texas at Austin discussed his research that suggests that most of the problems (violations/incidents) related to shale gas drilling are not those unique to unconventional natural gas extraction such as hydraulic fracturing, but to the more conventional processes and shale gas drilling’s surrounding infrastructure. He felt that many if not all of these are preventable if the entire industry implemented best practices. He posits that it is the intensity of drilling that has actually been the biggest contributor to the incidents and public concern about the safety of this process.
  • Dr. Allen Robinson from Carnegie Mellon University found that if the air emissions from active well sites were aggregated, they would be a significant contributor to regional air pollution. Emission are dependent on the composition of the gas (wet vs. dry).
  • Three quarters of the sand used for shale gas operations comes from Minnesota and Wisconsin (which could mean long transportation distances depending on the shale play where it is used). There is a significant amount of water used to clean the sand prior to transport, as well.
  • Research by Eric J. Esswein, M.S.P.H. of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicates that respirable silica, found in the sand used for hydraulic fracturing, is the greatest exposure hazard to workers on shale gas drilling sites. Silica is often released into the air when the sand is mixed into the frac fluid. Part of this risk is due to the lack of awareness about how long term exposure to it could result in irreversible lung damage and because half face respirators do not fully protect the workers from silica. This exposure can be significantly reduced by installing special technological controls on the mixing equipment. While hydrogen sulfide (H2S) can be present on sites, Mr. Esswein reports that workers are well informed and prepared for this hazard. The second most concerning exposure on the work site is diesel particulate matter.  Mr. Esswein emphasized that presently the most worker incidents are still related to mechanical problems/falls/traffic, not chemical exposures.
  • Dr. Timothy Kelsey discussed economic and community impacts in PA, noting that a significant challenge to the local economy presents when the drilling trend begins to slope downward. He also briefly mentioned that he has not seen significant community impacts being felt in northeastern PA that are normally associated with boom and bust cycles of resource extraction. However, there was some contention about that statement from attendees. For example, according to PennFuture, National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported that a group of churches in northern Tioga County opened the area’s first-ever homeless shelter to feed persons displaced by the influx of natural gas industry employees. Individuals working at a nearby drilling site reportedly made donations to help the work of the Jemison Brethren in Valley Christ Church. The establishment of this shelter was necessitated by the unintended impact of the shale gas industry on those in need of affordable housing — the poor and under-employed. In Williamsport, for example, the influx of industry workers caused moderately priced $400-per-month apartments to skyrocket to $1200. This set off a cascade of effects that ended with the lowest income persons being forced out of available housing.
  • Dr. Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality suggested that regulatory agencies in states where drilling is heavy should be actively monitoring ambient air (see map below) and periodically conducting fly overs of gas facilities with infrared cameras to detect fugitive emissions into the air.

This map displays the sites where TCEQ collects air sampling data and areas of non-attainment or near non-attainment for air quality standards. Click on it to be taken to TCEQ’s dynamic version.

Select slides from all of the presentations from this meeting are available for download here. Under the Other Meeting Resources tab on the right, click Presentations.