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Public health costs of oil, natural gas drilling

Oil and gas production has grown to nearly record levels in the United States. Ohio continues to be a major natural gas producing state covering both Utica and Marcellus Shales. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Ohio in 2021 was about 29 times greater than in 2010. That does not come without ramifications for our health.

While there is extensive research on climate effects of oil and gas-produced methane — key contributor to air pollution — few studies measured health effects of that pollution. However, a new study led by Boston University’s School of Public Health, University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, PSE Healthy Energy and Environmental Defense Fund fills this gap. Published in the journal Environmental Research: Health, the study found air pollution from oil and gas sector has substantial adverse impacts on air quality, human health and health care costs.

Alongside methane, oil and gas operations release other health harming pollutants, like volatile organic compounds, contributing to ground-level ozone or smog that can worsen respiratory diseases like asthma or emphysema, and increase risk of heart disease. In fact, according to recently released American Lung Association 2023 State of the Air Report, 8 of Ohio’s 10 most populated counties, including Cuyahoga, Lucas, and Hamilton, received grades of D or F for ozone pollution. Air pollution is taking its toll on Ohioans’ health.

The study revealed in 2016 oil and gas air pollution in Ohio caused 349 early deaths and exacerbated asthma in 15,500 Ohio children. There are 152,000 Ohio children living with asthma, meaning methane pollution negatively touches more than one in ten of our youngest residents.

Effects of methane-fueled climate change will be felt by our families. Records for overnight temperatures were recently broken in four major Ohio cities, with Toledo, Akron, Mansfield, and Findlay setting records for average minimum summer temperatures. In 2022, Columbus had nearly 20 days of summer where the temperature hit or exceeded 90 degrees, above normal for June through August, reflecting many nights when morning readings didn’t drop below the low 70s. These blazing temperatures bring a stark impact on cooling systems, electric bills and people’s health, specifically for children and those in frontline communities across the state. Now add the power outages experienced by many in Ohio and you have a climate change recipe for disaster.

About three million Ohioans (roughly 26%) live within a mile of oil and gas wells, and many of those most heavily impacted live just downwind from these facilities. In fact, Ohio ranks in the top five states with the highest impacts from oil and gas pollution. Unfortunately, however, methane pollution does not know to stop at state borders, meaning other states in the region also are impacted. This information underscores the need for strong, comprehensive federal regulations to protect all communities from air pollution generated by the oil and gas industry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is advancing rules to curb oil and gas methane emissions — emitted alongside health-harming volatile organic compounds and other air toxics, with advocates urging for the swift finalization of these rules.

Widespread public support for the U.S. E.P.A.’s proposed rules includes requirements for inspections at all wellsites, regardless of production. Recent research finds that while low-producing wells produce just 6% of the nation’s oil and gas, they drive half of all wellsite methane emission in the U.S. The total methane emitted from the country’s half million low-producing wells has the same impact on the climate every year as 88 coal-fired power plants.

There is also support for a transition to zero-emitting pneumatic controllers, the industry’s second leading source of methane pollution. Transitioning to zero-emitting alternatives, as EPA has proposed, is critical to addressing pollution.

As a nurse and public health professional, I recognize importance of reducing Ohio’s air pollution. Curbing oil and gas methane is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways to safeguard public health while immediately slowing the rate of global warming. It is imperative for the U.S. E.P.A. to quickly finalize strong, federal methane rules for our families and our future before the end of summer.

Peggy Ann Berry, PhD, RN, COHN-S, CLE, PLNC, FAAOHN, volunteers with Moms Clean Air Force in Ohio

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