Living near oil and gas wells increases exposure to air pollution, Stanford study finds


Researchers have found increased concentrations of air pollutants downwind of oil and gas wells in California, likely affecting millions of Californians who live nearby.

By Danielle Torrent Tucker

In a 14-year analysis of air quality across California, Stanford researchers observed higher levels of air pollutants within a 2.5-mile radius of oil and gas wells, likely exacerbating the negative effects on the health of nearby residents.

Scientists analyzed local air quality measurements in combination with atmospheric data and found that oil and gas wells emit toxic particles (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, oxide nitrous, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The findings, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, will help researchers determine how proximity to oil and gas wells may increase the risk of adverse health effects, including premature births, asthma, and childhood. heart disease.

“In California, black and Latin communities face some of the highest pollution from oil and gas wells. If we care about environmental justice and making sure every child has a chance to be healthy, we have to care, ”said lead author David Gonzalez, who conducted research for the study. while a doctoral candidate in Stanford’s interdisciplinary Emmett program in environment and resources. (E-IPER). “What’s new about our study is that we did it on a state-wide population scale using the same methods as public health studies.”

The results are consistent with other smaller-scale studies that measured emissions from a handful of wells. At least two million Californians live within a mile of a working oil or gas well.

“It’s really hard to show the air quality impacts of an activity like oil and gas production on a population scale, but it’s the scale we need to be able to infer health impacts, ”said lead study author Marshall Burke, associate professor of Earth System. science at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “While it’s not necessarily surprising that drilling and operating oil and gas wells emits air pollutants, knowing the magnitude of the effect improves our broader understanding of who is exposed to what and how. intervene to improve health outcomes. “

A global killer

Research reveals that when a new well is being drilled or reaches 100 barrels of production per day, the deadly particulate pollution known as PM2.5increases by two micrograms per cubic meter about one mile from the site. A recent study published in Science Advances found that long-term exposure to an extra microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 increases the risk of death from COVID-19 by 11%.

“We started in 2006 because that’s when local agencies started reporting PM2.5 concentrations,” said Gonzalez, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “We are very concerned about particles because it is one of the world’s leading killers. “

The team evaluated approximately 38,000 wells under drilling and 90,000 wells in production between 2006 and 2019. They developed an econometric model incorporating more than one million daily observations from 314 air monitors in combination with Global wind direction information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine if pollutants were coming from wells.

Other factors that could contribute to high emissions were monitored – such as smoke from forest fires or industrial activities – and monitors located far from drilling sites were used to identify factors unrelated to wells. They also analyzed locations with air quality data before and after drilling a well.

“Sometimes the wind blows from the well, sometimes it doesn’t, and we’ve seen significantly higher pollution on days when the wind blows from the wells,” Gonzalez said. “As a witness, we assumed that the wells downwind of the air monitor should not contribute any pollution – and this is indeed what we saw. “

Research also reveals that ozone – a strong oxidant that can cause wheezing, shortness of breath and worsening lung disease – was present up to 4 km from the wells. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), children are the most exposed to ozone because their lungs are still developing.

Chronic exposure

The new study contributes to a growing body of evidence about the dangers of living near oil and gas wells that can help guide ongoing policy development regarding residential drill site setbacks. For example, LA County recently voted to phase out oil and gas drilling, citing issues of climate change, environmental impacts, and fairness, and other California cities are under discussion over regulations. district drilling.

“Many California oil fields have been in operation for decades. People who live nearby have been chronically exposed to higher pollution levels – and many of these wells are located in neighborhoods already affected by pollution, ”Gonzalez said. “Our study adds to the evidence that public health policies are needed to reduce residents’ exposure to air pollution from wells.”

Although the research data comes from California, the coauthors say the findings are likely applicable to other regions with oil and gas operations.

“We have had previous articles suggesting that proximity to oil and gas production worsens health outcomes, and that the likely channel was air pollutants, but previously we had no way of demonstrating that this was. the case, ”said Burke. “This new work confirms that air pollution was the missing link between this type of energy production and the bad result that was close to our hearts.

Burke is also Deputy Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, Principal Investigator at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Fellow of Bio-X, and Fellow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Study co-authors include Gary Shaw, DrPH, professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and member of Bio-X and the Maternal & Child Health Research Institute (MCHRI); Mark Cullen, MD, founding director of the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences; Michael Baiocchi, assistant professor of epidemiology and population health; and Christina Francis of Johns Hopkins University, who conducted research in the Geosciences and Engineering Undergraduate Research Summer Program (SURGE).

The research was funded by the Ford Foundation Undergraduate Fellowship, the Vice President Graduate Studies at Stanford University and the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

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