Oil and Gas Development’s Impact on Public Health

Our examination of the peer-reviewed medical, public health, biological, earth sciences, and engineering literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health. – Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking


Sore throats, headaches, shortness of breath, nosebleeds, difficulty sleeping, and dizziness--- these are all ailments that at some point in time, all of us have experienced. Generally, the culprit seems obvious; perhaps seasonal allergies, a shift in weather, or a spike in stress levels are to blame. Yet a surplus of recent medical research reveals that for some of us, these symptoms correlate to exposure to environmental contaminants known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Invisible to the eye, VOCs encompass a wide range of chemicals known to cause both short and long-term health effects. VOC exposure comes from a variety of sources, including air fresheners, cosmetics, paints, furniture, and adhesives. Fracking sites, however, are one of the most concerning sources, as they daily release large quantities of VOCs, many of which are known carcinogens, into our air supply without anyone knowing it. Compressor stations, well-pads, and processing facilities at fracking sites all release toxic chemicals that once inhaled can cause a variety of health complications in all age demographics, including the unborn fetus.


Since oil and gas development is booming in the US, emitting more and more pollution every year, there is a clear need for increased discussion pertaining to fracking’s impact on public health. It is estimated that 18 million US citizens, 1.4 million of whom are young children, reside within a miles distance of working oil and gas wells (PSR, 2019, p. 20). In Colorado alone, there are 51,953 active well locations (COGCC, 2020, p. 3). Even more concerning is that those who live near fracking sites are not the only ones at risk: a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility shares that “air emissions from fracking can drift and pollute the air hundreds of miles downwind” (2019, p. 20). Proximity to active sites and the movement of VOC emissions through air and water, put a large portion of the US population at risk for developing cancer, respiratory diseases, weakened immunity, skin disorders, and other health complications.


Furthermore, since fracking emissions are invisible and the symptoms of poisoning mimic other disease processes, those impacted may be misdiagnosed or completely oblivious to the root of their symptoms. As medical school curriculum typically lacks training in identifying symptoms from VOC poisoning, many of the mental and physical adversities they cause can go undetected. Patients continue to live near hazardous sites, and needlessly suffer.


Fortunately, in recent years there has been a noble push on behalf of physicians, scientists, and public health leaders to recognize, educate, and mitigate the adverse impacts of VOCs. Notably, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) has used “medical and public health expertise to educate and advocate on urgent issues that threaten human health and survival, with the goals of reversing the trajectory towards climate change, protecting the public and the environment from toxic chemicals, and addressing the health consequences of fossil fuels” for the past five decades (PSR, 2019, p. 2). On December 5th, an exciting opportunity awaits for all to participate in this important conversation regarding public health and environmental contaminants via PSR Colorado’s second online Medical Symposium: “Health Effects of Oil and Gas Development.”


This all day event, featuring 12 experts in the field, will cover topics ranging from oil and gas development’s impact on human physiology and disease processes, mental health, wildlife and livestock, climate change, social justice, and also the legal loopholes that allow it to continue. Concerns pertaining to oil and gas development will be viewed through both a cellular and global lens, allowing for a dynamic perspective on the many threats behind the industry. For example, this year’s keynote speaker Detlev Helmig PhD will discuss the ways that VOCs travel throughout the atmosphere from areas of dense fracking activity.


According to PSR Colorado advocate and organizer Fran Levine, the purpose of this year’s symposium is to spread awareness through interdisciplinary fields and the general public, “so we can protect the environment, wildlife, and people.” There is a clear need for implementation of environmental risk assessment and research within the medical field, but Levine claims that we need to expand that education to all fields. Her goal is to insert the discussion into the work of psychologists, veterinarians, social workers, educators, agriculturalists and many others.


Levine also urges that even if you are lucky enough to not live close to a fracking site, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be educated and diligent about the topic. As pollutants move through air and water, we are reminded of a principal concept within ecology: everything is connected. We are all living under the same sky and breathe the same air. As a global people, we have a reasonability to understand the impacts that modernization has on the planet and the future of our children. Furthermore, oil and gas development is still booming; you never know when it will literally pop up in YOUR backyard.


Please consider participating in this amazing, and well-researched symposium December 5th. For Medical and Health professionals, CME, Contact Hours, and CE credits are available. Attendance is free for the general public.

To explore risk of exposure to fracking sites based on your own geographical location, visit https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/colorado/.


Many thanks to Fran Levine for offering essential information used in this article, and for her devotion, along with all other PSR advocates, to help protect the health and integrity of our nation.


Additional References:

Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) (2020), Readiness Whitepaper. Department of Natural Resources. (3-9).

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) (2019). Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction),Concerned Health Professionals of New York, (6), 1-20.



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