Approximately 85% of all new wells for the BC liquified natural gas (LNG) industry require hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to be accessed. Fracking is the process by which previously inaccessible natural gas is forced out of rock formations by pumping millions of litres of clean water, mixed with sand and many potentially hazardous chemicals, into the earth.
Though gas exploration has been occurring in BC for decades, particularly in the Northeast, the use of hydraulic fracturing is fairly recent. Fracking’s long-term health consequences are not well understood. However, 87% of air quality studies find elevated air pollution and potential adverse health implications. Maryland, USA, is the latest jurisdiction to halt fracking on health grounds.
A recent study by Dr. Ellen Webb of the Centre for Environmental Health indicates that air pollution emissions associated with unconventional oil and gas operations (such as fracking), including ozone, benzene (a known carcinogen), formaldehyde and particulate matter, may have negative lung impacts for children. Children, from birth to adolescence, may be more vulnerable to air pollution due to their still-developing respiratory systems, narrower airways and higher chances of exposure.
Ground-level ozone, created when airborne chemicals from fracking and diesel fumes react with sunlight, has been reported at levels higher than recommended by public health standards in fracking areas. These levels can lead to inflammation in the respiratory system and reduce lung function in children. Warm sunny days, when children are most likely to be outside, are associated with the highest levels of ozone, and there is a strong correlation between days with high ozone and emergency hospitalizations for asthma.
Particulate matter (PM), produced during fracking, is a mixture of small solid particulars, heavy metals, radioactive materials and other organic chemicals suspended in the air. PM can travel far distances to be inhaled and is associated with airway inflammation, onset and worsening of asthma, and decreased immune response leading to pneumonia. The authors suggest childhood exposure to PM may lead to cancer later in life.
Benzene and formaldehyde, both of which have been found at concentrations exceeding health standards, are associated with chest discomfort, difficulty breathing, wheezing, reduced heart function and asthma.
Though we cannot prove a causal link between fracking and air pollution-induced child illness, the evidence from the majority of studies indicates negative health effects. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment has called for a moratorium on fracking in BC, which may be a proactive way to protect children’s health.
Thanks to Amy Anne Lubik for this information.