As a mom of young twins, I’ve known for several years that air pollution is especially harmful for children’s developing lungs. I regularly check the air quality report on my phone, monitoring for days when it might be unhealthy for my active children to play outside. When my parents both became eligible for Medicare in the last few years, I started to think more about how air pollution might affect their health: thanks to the aging process, older bodies are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of air pollution as well.
Across the US, oil and gas developments are a significant source of air pollutants that disproportionately burden younger and older lungs, as well as communities of color and those with pre-existing medical conditions. A recent study, published in January in Nature Energy, found that for older adults, living near or downwind of unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD) operations may increase the risk of early death.
Unconventional oil and gas developments involve extraction methods like directional drilling (drilling for oil or gas in a non-vertical direction) and fracking. Fracking is the process of drilling for natural gas from shale formations (shale is a kind of sedimentary rock that forms from mud). Large amounts of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, are blasted deep into the earth to fracture shale formations and release oil and gas. Compared with conventional methods for oil and gas extraction, UOGD tends to involve longer construction times, require more water and toxic chemicals, and take up more space.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which is a flammable gas carried through pipeline networks and used as energy for things like heating and cooking. Methane is a harmful climate pollutant that can warm the atmosphere even more aggressively than carbon dioxide in the short term. Throughout the process of fracking, methane leaks are a problem. UOGD is also associated with other forms of pollution, including increased exposure to air pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, and naturally occurring radioactive materials.
In this new study, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied over 15 million older Americans (aged 65+) living in all major US UOGD regions (such as Texas and Pennsylvania) between 2001 and 2015. The study team used zip code data from Medicare to calculate the level of exposure to a mix of primary air pollutants from UOGD each individual would be exposed to based on how far away they lived from UOGD facilities. The researchers’ analysis also included modeling that accounted for the prevailing monthly wind direction.
An association between UOGD-related air pollution and the risk of early death in older adults was the study’s key finding. Researchers also found that the closer people lived to UOGD wells, the higher their risk of dying early. People who lived closest to the wells had a 2.5% higher risk of early death than people living farther away. And people living downwind (in the direction the wind is blowing) of UOGD operations had a higher risk of dying early than people living upwind (away from where the wind is blowing).
“Although UOGD is a major industrial activity in the U.S.,” the study’s senior author Petros Koutrakis said in a press release from Harvard, “very little is known about its public health impacts. Our study is the first to link mortality to UOGD-related air pollutant exposures.” Harvard’s press release also noted the rapid expansion of UOGD in the past decade, highlighting that as of 2015, over 100,000 land-based wells were drilled using fracking and directional drilling methods. Approximately 17.6 million Americans, or about 5% of the US population, currently live within one kilometer of an active well.
Previous research has found associations between UOGD and breathing problems, heart problems, adverse birth outcomes, and increased cancer risk. Other health impacts of UOGD include contaminated water and noise and light pollution.
This new research comes as the EPA considers strengthening emissions standards for methane and other forms of harmful pollution from the oil and gas industry. “Our findings suggest the importance of considering the potential health dangers of situating UOGD near or upwind of people’s homes,” stated the study’s lead author Longxiang Li. Given the large number of Americans who live near active oil and gas operations, there’s little doubt that understanding the impact of these developments on our communities’ health is an urgent public health need—especially for those of us who care about the health of our beloved parents and elders.