New report finds high levels of toxic chemicals in people living near gas wells

The first ever study to sample both the air near shale sites and the levels of chemicals in people living and working near those wells, has discovered that biological samples from the studied subjects show chemicals from gas wells at levels as much as ten times the national averages.

When the Wind Blows: Tracking Toxic Chemicals in Gas Fields and Impacted Communities is a report documenting a collaborative, community-based research project to monitor toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in gas fields in rural Pavillion, Wyoming and to see what same VOCs are present in the bodies of people who work and live there.

The report was the effect of a collaboration of several partners, led by Coming Clean, an environmental health and justice campaigning collaborative focused on protecting public health and the environment from toxic chemicals and pollution, and promoting clean energy and safe chemical solutions. Coming Clean provided the coordination leadership for this project, with the organisational and individual partners including:

  • Clean Production Action, a non-profit organisation that designs and delivers strategic solutions for green chemicals, sustainable materials and environmentally preferable products, including the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals hazard assessment method;
  • Commonweal, a non-profit environmental health research organisation with expertise in biomonitoring as a tool for understanding how individuals and communities are exposed to chemicals;
  • Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, a non-profit organisation of people interested in issues including oil and gas development which impact Pavillion, Wyoming area residents;
  • ShaleTest, a non-profit organisation which collects environmental data and provides testing for families and communities that are negatively impacted by oil and gas development; and
  • Wilma Subra of Subra Company, an award-winning chemist and microbiologist who for more than 30 years has researched the impacts of toxic chemicals on the environment and on public health.

The study was carried out in Pavillion, Wyoming – a town best-known nationwide for its battles over water contamination and fracking. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a study, but it subsequently dropped it, leaving the investigation to state regulators who have yet to reach any final conclusions. In March 2016, scientists from Stanford University published a paper concluding that drinking water supplies showed clear evidence of contamination from fracking operations. Despite that, Encana, a drilling company operating in Pavillion, has denied any knowledge of any ground or water contamination taking place.

The new research concentrated on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and a specific family of VOCs named BTEX chemicals (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, and Xylenes) – because these chemicals are also known to be hazardous to human health, even at low levels. The researchers found evidence of 16 potentially dangerous chemicals in 11 individuals who volunteered to participate in the study by wearing air monitors and providing blood and urine samples. They found benzene, toluene, 2-heptanone, 4 heptanone and evidence of roughly a dozen other substances — including some known to be quite dangerous and others for which little safety information is available.

Wilma Subra, who participated in the report, told DeSmog Blog that there was reason to be concerned about the health of the people included in the study, saying that they found chemicals “above acceptable levels in many cases.”

The health concerns would be about the same in many gas fields across the U.S., she said. “It is very similar to other areas where shale has been developed,” she added, “but also to areas where conventional drilling has taken place over the years.”

One gas-related substance, “trans,transmuconic acid,” was found in urine samples from Pavillion residents in higher concentrations than the median levels for refinery workers in Brazil. But relatively little is known about the health impacts of the vast majority of chemicals associated with drilling and fracking.

According to the scientists participating in the study, the high hazard of the chemicals emitted into the air, together with the findings that the levels of certain VOC metabolites in urine of the people studied are well above the levels in the general population, constitutes a clear signal that government agencies must act now to protect people who live and work in the Pavillion area and in oil and gas fields across the U.S.

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