Barbara Gottlieb’s Testimony on EPA Methane Standards July 10, 2017

Testimony of Barbara Gottlieb
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Speaking On the Oil and Gas New Source Performance Standards
Docket IDs No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2010-0505 and EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0346

July 10, 2017
Washington, DC

I’m Barbara Gottlieb, Director for Environment & Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. We are a national nonprofit whose mission is to protect human life from the greatest threats to health and survival. We identify climate change and environmental toxics as among those threats, so I am very pleased to testify in support of the New Source Performance Standards for methane, and in opposition to the proposed stays that would delay the standards’ implementation and enforcement. Thank you for holding this hearing.

The release into the atmosphere of methane, VOCs and air toxics from oil and gas operations poses multiple dangers to human health. Given the short time, my testimony today focuses on VOCs. I will also submit written comments in the near future that address this and the climate crisis and are fully footnoted.

Scientists have reached a new point in their research findings on the health effects of “fracking” for natural gas and oil. We now have recent, highly reputable, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that demonstrates not only health risks from fracking, but actual associations between proximity to fracking and poor health outcomes.

We have long known that VOCs are associated with oil and gas extraction; that VOCs and the ozone pollution they contribute to have been detected at dangerous levels at fracking sites, even in rural areas not usually associated with air pollution; and that VOCs also leak from pipelines and compressor stations. We also know that VOCs include benzene, known to cause cancer in humans, and toluene that can inflict neurological damage, and that ground-level ozone can cause irreversible damage to the lungs, exacerbate asthma and contribute to premature death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes. But those were just risk factors; we didn’t have firm evidence that gas and oil extraction was actually causing illness.

For years we also heard from people living near fracking operations that they were suffering from splitting headaches, physical exhaustion, unexplained nosebleeds and other health effects, and that livestock was suffering stillbirths and death. Some of those residents associated these health issues with their proximity to fracking operations. But that was anecdotal evidence; it wasn’t proof.

Today we have moved beyond risk factors and anecdotal evidence. We now have peer-reviewed scientific studies from highly reputable sources that document a statistical association between living close to a gas or oil fracking site and serious health outcomes. Let me mention four studies:

  • A study published in the journal Epidemiology, March 2016, examined electronic health record data on over 10,000 births in northern and central Pennsylvania. It found that expectant mothers living in the most active fracking areas were at greater risk of having a high-risk pregnancy, and 40 percent more likely to give birth prematurely.[1] Preterm birth as you may know is the greatest contributor to infant death in this country and is a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children.[2]
  • A 2014 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives looked at almost 25,000 births in rural Colorado. That’s a large database. The study found that the prevalence of congenital heart defects in newborns increased with exposure, specifically higher density of, and greater proximity to, natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of the mother’s residence.[3]
  • A 2015 study by University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University researchers published in the journal PLoS One found that residing near gas or oil fracking sites in Pennsylvania was associated with increased rates of hospitalization for cardiac, neurological, urological, cancer-related, and skin-related problems. This study compared outcomes in counties with gas and oil wells against a control county where there were no wells; in the communities with the most wells, the rate of cardiac hospitalizations was 27 percent higher than in the control county.[4]
  • And finally, research published in the July 2016 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) identified a statistical association between progressively worsening asthma symptoms and the patient’s proximity to natural gas fracking operations.[5]

In short, if you live near oil and gas extraction operations, the odds go up that your asthma symptoms will get worse; you will be hospitalized for cardiac or neurological issues or cancer; or, if you have a baby, your baby will have a serious birth defect or be born prematurely and be at greater risk of dying.

The studies don’t prove that all those grave health problems are caused by VOCs from gas and oil wells. Some of them are no doubt due to other causes, possibly the toxic substances used in fracking fluids that contaminate the water. But it is highly plausible that the toxic gases emitted from oil and gas operations are responsible for serious and documented damage to health. The oil and gas industry should be required to take effective steps to prevent or capture fugitive emissions of VOCs and methane from their operations. Delay is inappropriate and dangerous to health. Physicians for Social Responsibility urges that the eminently reasonable protections envisioned in the New Source Performance Standards be implemented and enforced fully and immediately. Thank you.

[1] Casey J.A. et al. “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA.” Epidemiology, Volume 27, Issue 2. March 2016.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Premature Death.”

[3] McKenzie, L. M., et al. (2014). Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado. Environmental Health Perspectives, 122, 412-417. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1306722

[4] Jemielita T. et al, 2015. Unconventional gas and oil drilling is associated with increased hospital utilization rates. PLoS ONE 10, e0131093. doi: 10.1371/journal. Pone.131093.

[5] Rasmussen, SG, et al (September 2016). Association Between Unconventional Natural Gas Development in the Marcellus Shale and Asthma Exacerbations. Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(9):1334-1343. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.2436

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