This post was written by Ellen Webb and Molly Rauch:
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally finalized the country’s first ever methane emissions standards for the oil and gas industry. The rule will help fight climate change by supporting the Obama Administrator’s goal of cutting 2012 levels of methane emissions by up to 45 percent by 2025.
The rule comes at a time when evidence about the hazards of air pollution from oil and gas is growing. Every stage of the oil and gas “lifecycle” can lead to air and water pollution, and certain populations are vulnerable to this pollution. Two new resources from our organizations highlight the health hazards faced by infants and children in particular: A fact sheet from Moms Clean Air Force on how oil and gas operations can impact your babies’ health; and a peer-reviewed paper from the Center for Environmental Health and fellow advocates reviewing how fracking can affect infant and children’s respiratory health.
At a time when methane emissions from oil and gas are facing first-ever federal regulations, it is important to note that methane isn’t the only pollutant emitted from these sites. A host of other dangerous air pollutants come out right alongside methane, and where methane is reduced, so will these other pollutants decline.
- Children are not little adults. Children are more vulnerable to harm from air pollution than adults because their bodies are growing and changing. The respiratory system is particularly vulnerable during development in-utero, the postnatal period, and early childhood. Children also behave differently from adults, often spending more time playing and running outside. This puts them at greater risk from exposure to air pollutants.
- Asthma. The same chemicals found in the air near fracking wells and oil and gas fields have been linked to respiratory ailments like asthma. Ground level ozone, particulate matter, benzene, and formaldehyde all trigger asthma attacks in people with asthma; some evidence suggests that exposure to these pollutants may even cause asthma. One in ten US children suffers from asthma.
- Infections. Air pollution may increase children’s susceptibility to infections and decrease their overall immunity. In addition to interfering with normal lung development, pollutants such as ozone may affect immune response, leading to more lung infections.
- Cancer. Benzene and formaldehyde are both released at gas drilling sites into the surrounding air. Both are known carcinogens. Children who are exposed to these pollutants from fracking may be at greater risk of cancer later in life; more research is needed about the extent of exposures and the scope of health impacts of living near fracking operations.
- Coughing. In addition to being a carcinogen, benzene is also a respiratory irritant. In children, benzene and formaldehyde exposure has been linked to increased coughing and wheezing. Chest discomfort and difficulty breathing have also been associated with exposure to these pollutants.
- Low birth weight. Several of the air pollutants associated with fracking, such as benzene and particle pollution, are also associated with low birth weight. There is some evidence that living near fracking operations increases the risk of having a low birth weight baby. Low birth weight babies are at increased risk of early death, infections, and learning disabilities.
- Harms to the Heart. Fracking requires intensive use of trucks and diesel engines. The resulting air pollution, including diesel emissions and particle pollution, is known to increase the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. It is unknown whether exposure to these pollutants in infancy and childhood increases cardiovascular risks later in life.
- Harms to the Lungs. The kind of air pollution associated with fracking operations has been linked to reduced lung and pulmonary function, as well as lung and pulmonary inflammation.
- Psycho-social Toll. Beyond chemical exposure, fracking brings noise, traffic, temporary workers, and other changes to communities. These can cause stress, difficulty sleeping, and psychological effects that can worsen existing health conditions for children.
- Climate Change. The main component of natural gas is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that packs a climate-warming punch 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years of its release. Methane leaks at every stage of the natural gas life cycle, helping to drive dangerous climate change. Our children’s health and future is at risk from this type of air pollution.
We applaud that the EPA has taken an important step to reduce methane emissions. But it is just the first step. EPA must address all sources of methane pollution. The new rule deals only with the methane that will be emitted from new and modified sources, leaving untouched all existing sources of methane pollution from oil and gas operations. This leaves our children vulnerable to the health impacts of fracking. For the sake of our children, it’s time to clean up the pollution at all fracking sites, not just the ones that have yet to be built.
Ellen Webb is Healthy Energy Sciences and Advocacy Manager for Center for Environmental Health.
Molly Rauch is Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force.