Natural gas and air pollution facts
Air pollution from natural gas development is a growing problem.
There is a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how much hazardous pollution is being emitted into our air during the development and processing of natural gas. But scientists know enough to be very concerned about how natural gas development is harming the air quality of our communities—and jeopardizing children’s health.
Just a few examples:
In 2012, because of the concentration of natural gas development, Dallas, Texas had more “Ozone Alert” days than Houston: a first in the state’s history.
Remote areas of Utah and Wyoming, areas that once had pristine, clear, clean air, are now experiencing unheard-of levels of air pollution. Wintertime ozone levels are exceeding the nation’s health-based air quality standards. There is very little industrial activity in these areas other than natural gas and oil production.
In Colorado and Texas, elevated levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, have been detected near natural gas development sites.
In 2013, Colorado regulators measured elevated wintertime ground-level ozone levels for the first time, prompting an environmental group to petition the Bureau of Land Management to halt all new oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands in northwest Colorado where the pollution was detected.
The entire process of gas development—from the drilling of the well, to the processing of the gas, to its transportation—is contributing to potentially hazardous levels of air pollution.
WHAT’S GETTING INTO OUR AIR?
Methane. CH4. The principle component of gas itself.
Some methane–it is unclear exactly how much–leaks out of natural gas pipelines and fracking equipment. This is unintentional, and can happen at many points along the system. These kinds of leaks are called “fugitive emissions”.
According to the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, methane is 34 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale, so its global-warming potential is 34. Nearly 40% increase from the IPCC’s previous estimate of 25.
Gas developers have not been required to locate, measure, or plug leaks. That must change.
Fugitive Methane Studies:
Volatile Organic Compounds and Oxides of Nitrogen
The fracking process can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, toluene, and methane, into the air, where they contribute to ozone formation. Ozone is formed when the sun reacts with VOCs and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the atmosphere
That’s why NOx and VOCs are often referred to as “ozone precursors”—their presence helps set the stage for the formation of ozone.
Ground level ozone—O3–is the main component of smog.
Ozone can travel hundreds of miles carried by the wind.
Ozone is a powerful oxidant that can irritate the airways, causing a burning sensation, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Ozone has been linked to a host of maladies, including premature mortality, heart failure, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for asthma sufferers, and possible long-term damage to the lungs.
Children, the elderly, and people with existing respiratory conditions are the most at risk from ozone pollution. Children are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of ozone because their lungs are still developing—and children tend to be more active outdoors, even when ozone levels are high.
HAZARDOUS AIR POLLUTANTS
These are some of the other pollutants associated with gas development:
Exposure to benzene can cause skin and respiratory irritation, and long-term exposure can lead to cancer and blood, developmental and reproductive disorders
Long-term exposure to toluene can cause skin and respiratory irritation, headaches, dizziness, birth defects and damage the nervous system
Ethylbenzene can cause irritation of the throat and eyes, and dizziness and long-term exposure can cause blood disorders
High levels of xylene exposure have numerous short-term impacts, including nausea, gastric irritation and neurological effects, and long-term exposure can negatively impact the nervous system
Exposure to n-hexane can cause dizziness, nausea and headaches, while long-term exposure can lead to numbness, muscular atrophy, blurred vision and fatigue
The EPA notes that areas with natural gas development can have increased levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). The air quality impacts of these emissions vary based on local conditions, but they can be significant, even in rural areas.
WHAT CAN MOMS DO ABOUT NATURAL GAS AIR POLLUTION?
Organize to fight for strong regulatory standards in your state and on the federal level—standards that cover all phases of natural gas development, wherever it is already occurring.
Demand ozone monitoring and information about other hazardous air pollutants to get the data that lets you know whether or not the air you are breathing is safe.
In places where fracking has not yet started, demand that your state take full account of the public health implications for air, water, and climate before permitting natural gas development.
If your community wants to ban fracking make sure you are armed with the facts to be a more effective spokesperson.
For more information on natural gas development please see our extensive Q&A