Listen to this article Oil And Gas Air Pollution Linked To Early Deaths, Childhood Asthma Nationwide
The Impact of Oil and Gas Production on Air Quality and Human Health
Despite global efforts to shift towards clean energy, oil and gas (O&G) production is increasing in the United States. This growth is raising concerns among health experts about the potential impacts on air quality and human health. While methane emissions from O&G production are well studied, few studies have looked at the health effects of the air pollution generated by these activities.
New Study Reveals the Extent of the Problem
A recent study, published in the journal Environmental Research: Health, sheds light on this issue. Led by the School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment (UNC-IE), PSE Healthy Energy, and Environmental Defense Fund, the study found that air pollution from O&G production in the United States has significant adverse impacts on air quality, human health, and health costs.
The study’s findings show that pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) from U.S. O&G production contributed to:
7,500 excess deaths
410,000 asthma attacks
2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the U.S. in 2016
In addition, oil and gas production was responsible for $77 billion in annual health costs. This figure is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from O&G operations.
The Impact is Felt Across the Country
The health impacts of O&G production are not limited to areas with significant oil and gas production. The study found that densely populated cities with little or no gas activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Orlando, also experienced health impacts.
The five states with the highest impacts from O&G pollution were those with significant oil and gas activity, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. However, Illinois and New York, states that produce very little O&G, still landed in the 6th and 8th spots.
The Importance of Emission Reduction Policies
The study’s results suggest that O&G emissions reduction policies, such as the forthcoming EPA methane regulations, may produce immediate and significant air quality benefits to human health, along with significant climate benefits. The researchers urge policymakers to consider these “co-benefits” in future emissions reduction strategies.
The Need for Comprehensive Strategies
The study’s authors stress that strategies focusing solely on end-of-pipe pollution controls during combustion, such as in power plants, vehicles, buildings, and industry, are only addressing part of the problem. “These substantial impacts from oil and gas production show that there are serious consequences across the full life cycle of oil and gas, from ‘well to wheels,’ ‘well to power plant,’ and ‘well to furnace,'” says study corresponding author Jonathan Buonocore, assistant professor of environmental health. “In order for energy, air quality, and decarbonization policies to successfully protect health, they need to incorporate health impacts across this full life cycle.”
The Role of NO2 in the Health Impacts
Among the three pollutants examined, NO2 was the highest contributor to the overall health impacts, producing 37 percent of these effects, followed by O3 at 35 percent, and PM2.5 at 28 percent. NO2 contributes to the formation of PM2.5 and O3, so reducing O&G-produced NO2 could be effective in reducing health impacts. State regulations addressing precursor NO2 emissions from the oil and gas sector could help mitigate childhood asthma cases for communities living in proximity to the emission sources and provide secondary ozone and PM2.5 health benefits in the broader region.
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