Health Issues

Do you think your health may be affected by nearby unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD or “fracking”)? If you have any concerns about your environmental conditions, be sure to let your health care provider know or contact EHP for help.

The EHP office, located in Washington County, PA, is open Monday – Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. by appointment only. To discuss your health concerns and schedule a visit, please contact EHP at 724-260-5504 or info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org.

Environmental Health Project (EHP)
2001 Waterdam Plaza Drive, Suite 201
McMurray, PA 15317

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH BACKGROUND

Historically, rich natural resources of timber, rocks, and minerals in Pennsylvania (and other states) helped to industrialize the nation through the production of iron, steel, coal, and oil. Each of these industries had a direct and visible impact on our environment. Environmental abuses were met with changes in law and policy to restore balance to the use of resources and protect the environment and public health.

Today, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH), environmental health examines how different environments affect a person’s well being. For example, the health effects of breathing air or drinking water are researched in specific locations where there may be cause for concern. DOH environmental health staff members work closely with federal, state, county, and local officials, as well as with the public, to help address environmental health issues and concerns.

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH ISSUES & UOGD

Data suggest that unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD or “fracking”) poses substantial risk to public health from the toxic chemicals used during the industrial process, as well as from other associated problems. It is believed that the potential consequences of “fracking” begin at the onset of drilling and may last long after the operation has ended.

Research is mounting on the emissions from UOGD at all stages and on health effects experienced by nearby residents. Many of the toxic chemicals that have been found in air and water samples around UOGD operations have well known adverse health effects. For example, benzene is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing), toluene is a neurotoxin, and hydrogen sulfide irritates the lungs and can cause asthma. Noise and light pollution is associated with hearing loss, sleeplessness, and other health issues. Prolonged stress can also lead to significant health problems like heart disease, cancer, and depression.

ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH EXPOSURES

Toxic pollutants can enter our bodies through inhalation, ingestion, and absorption. Environmental pollutants can affect anyone, but some people like children, pregnant women, older adults with preexisting health conditions, and industry workers may be at greater risk. If you live near UOGD operations, you may be exposed in the following ways:

  • Breathing polluted air
  • Drinking, cooking with, and bathing with contaminated water
  • Eating food grown in contaminated soil

Individuals may also experience harmful levels of stress and health problems from the noise, vibration, and light pollution associated with heavy industrial activities.

BIOMONITORING

One frequently asked question is whether individuals living or working near UOGD sites such as well pads, compressor stations, or production facilities should undergo biomonitoring (blood or urine tests) to determine if they have harmful chemicals in their body as a result of exposures from these operations. One common class of potentially harmful emissions from oil and gas development is “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). While there are blood and urine tests available to assess exposures to VOCs, the results can be misleading, resulting in either false reassurance or unnecessary alarm. Before undergoing testing, it is important to understand the nature and limitations of these tests.

Some limitations in biomonitoring testing in the UOGD setting include:

  • Most of the chemicals associated with UOGD activity are cleared rapidly from the body, so a test may not show the presence of a chemical or metabolite even if someone is exposed to a pollutant. This may result in a “false negative” result, which can be inappropriately reassuring.
  • Some metabolites of potentially harmful chemicals are also metabolites of common foods or medications. Consequently, the presence of these substances in blood or urine may not result from a harmful chemical and thus may present a “false positive” result, which can be inappropriately alarming.
  • Many chemicals have multiple sources of exposure in the environment. Because of this, it can be difficult to determine if a positive result is from a UOGD-related exposure or from some other exposure.
  • Some toxic chemicals do not have an associated, measurable metabolite in the blood or urine that is specific to the chemical of concern. In this scenario, even if an exposure to environmental pollutants did occur, there may be no way to detect that exposure.
  • Even if a chemical can be appropriately measured in blood or urine, for most chemicals or metabolites, there are no reference values to indicate whether the amount detected poses a health risk. 

Although no specific testing protocol currently exists for monitoring low levels of environmental exposures, healthcare providers are encouraged to perform routine periodic blood and urine tests to monitor kidney, liver, and thyroid function as well as hematologic status. When patients are experiencing new symptoms, these should be evaluated in a thorough fashion, recognizing that environmental exposures may be contributing to the symptoms, but without automatically assuming that environmental exposures are responsible.

An additional note is that although the results of biomonitoring results in individuals are often difficult to interpret and therefore not routinely recommended, biomonitoring of populations, where results are average over a large group of individuals, may provide useful information regarding comparative levels of exposures to particular communities.

For more information, check out our factsheet on biomonitoring.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Learn more about the environmental health effects from unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD or “fracking”) and explore ways to improve your health on the following pages:

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Photo by Schmerling. Rig PA. Nov 17, 2010. Provided by The FracTracker Alliance on FracTracker.org