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Living near oil and gas wells increases air pollution exposure

In a 14-year analysis of air quality across California, Stanford researchers observed higher levels of air pollutants within 2.5 miles of oil and gas wells, likely worsening negative health outcomes for nearby residents. The scientists analyzed local air quality measurements in combination with atmospheric data and found that oil and gas wells are emitting toxic…

In a 14-year analysis of air quality across California, Stanford researchers observed higher levels of air pollutants within 2.5 miles of oil and gas wells, likely worsening negative health outcomes for nearby residents.

The scientists analyzed local air quality measurements in combination with atmospheric data and found that oil and gas wells are emitting toxic particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The findings, which appear in the journal Science of the Total Environment, will help researchers determine how proximity to oil and gas wells may increase the risk of adverse health outcomes, including preterm birth, asthma and heart disease.

“In California, Black and Latinx communities face some of the highest pollution from oil and gas wells. If we care about environmental justice and making sure every kid has a chance to be healthy, we should care about this,” said lead author David Gonzalez, who conducted research for the study while a PhD student in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER). “What’s novel about our study is that we’ve done this at a population, state-wide scale using the same methods as public health studies.”

The findings align with other smaller-scale studies that have measured emissions from a handful of wells. At least two million Californians live within one mile of an active oil or gas well.

“It’s really hard to show air quality impacts of an activity like oil and gas production at a population scale, but that’s the scale we need to be able to infer health impacts,” said senior study author Marshall Burke, an associate professor of Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “While it’s not necessarily surprising that drilling and operating oil and gas wells emit air pollutants, knowing the magnitude of the effect improves our broader understanding of who is exposed to what and how to intervene to improve health outcomes.”

A global killer

The research reveals that when a new well is being drilled or reaches 100 barrels of production per day, the deadly particle pollution known as PM2.5increases two micrograms per cubic meter about a mile away from the site. A recent study published in Science Advances found that long-term exposure to one additional microgram per meter cubed of PM2.5 increases the risk of death from COVID-19 by 11 percent.

“We started in 2006 because that’s when local agencies started reporting PM2.5 concentrations,” said Gonzalez, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re very concerned about particulate matter because it’s a leading global killer.”

The team evaluated about 38,000 wells that were being drilled and 90,000 wells in production between 2006 and 2019. They developed an econometric model incorporating over a million daily observations from 314 air monitors in combination with global wind direction information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to determine if the pollu

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