How can oil and gas activities affect human health?

The water, land and the air can become contaminated in a number of ways putting local communities at risk.

Exposure Pathways 

There are numerous potential exposure pathways for health impacts from oil and gas. The risks arise not only from the chemicals and other substances used in operations, but also from the chemicals and other substances which are also mobilized underground. These substances may reach workers and/or people living nearby via the air, soil or water. The research to date suggests that exposure to pollutants via air is potentially the greatest and most far-reaching threat to public health by oil and gas operations and that there are multiple points of air emissions from gas fields.

Key pollutants associated with these activities include:

  • BTEX compounds Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene ;
  • Other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including, acetylene, ethylene, propylene, styrene, 1,3-butadiene;
  • Aldehydes including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, acrolein, methyl ethyl ketone and benzaldehyde;
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) including naphthalene, acenaphthene, anthracene, fluoranthene, pyrene, benzo(b)fluoranthene, benzo(e)pyrene, indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene, benzo(a)pyrene;
  • Nitrogen dioxide;
  • Sulphur dioxide, sulphides (e.g. hydrogen sulphide, carbon disulphide) and
  • Particulate matter; and
  • Dioxins and furans.

Potential health effects of the pollutants can include:

Acute (short-term) respiratory or cardiovascular adverse effects, e.g.

  • sore eyes and throat from formaldehyde;
  • aggravation of asthma from particulate matter; or
  • nausea or headaches from (odorous) hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans.

Chronic (long-term) adverse effects, e.g.

  • Post neo-natal respiratory mortality from particulate matter;
  • Retarded lung development from nitrogen dioxide; or
  • Cancer from benzene

In Taranaki we have had oil and gas exploration and production for more than a century. There are well sites and production facilities near to  homes and communities.  There have been a number of health concerns that have been reported in studies internationally. Taranaki Energy Watch have been alerted to health problems in the region that are possibly related to the oil and gas activities similar to those reported overseas.To date there has been no comprehensive study in New Zealand of whether  oil and gas activities are having a negative impact on the health of the communities that live nearby.

United States Research 

Published US studies have looked at effects of oil and gas and demonstrate why this type of research is urgently needed in New Zealand.

  1. Updated in 2016 the Compendium is a fully referenced compilation of the scientific, medical, and media findings outlining the risks and harms of fracking and is available as a public, open-access document. The Compendium states that “a significant body of evidence has emerged to demonstrate these activities are dangerous to people and their communities in ways that are difficult- and may prove impossible- to mitigate. Risks include earthquakes and adverse impacts on water, air, agriculture, public health and safety, property values, climate stability, and economic vitality.”
  2. A Public Health Review  published in 2014 included a study by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Colombia University, after analyzing 95,000 inpatient records, found that drilling and fracking activity was associated with increased rates of hospitalization, revealing significant associations with cardiological and neurological diseases.
  3. A study published in 2015 involving a retrospective cohort study using electronic health record data on 9,384 mothers found that prenatal residential exposure to unconventional natural gas development activity was associated with two adverse pregnancy outcomes; preterm births and high risk pregnancies.

You can read more about the effects on people in these articles:

Chemicals of Concern

  1. Fracking fluids: More and more wells in Taranaki are being fracked. A New South Wales Chief Scientist commissioned study says fracking fluids “remain a potentially high threat to human health.” The New Zealand Ministry for the Environment guidelines on onshore petroleum activities development state “emissions from a well can be significantly higher if hydraulic fracturing is used than if it is not used. “
  2. Air Pollutants: Air pollutants are emitted from multiple sources within gasfields including venting of gases from pipelines; venting and flaring of excess gases; leaks of gas from wells and other infrastructure; seepage of gas through geological pathways to the surface; and emissions from equipment including diesel generators and compressors. In the US studies showed “Air sampling surveys find exceedingly high concentrations of volatile organic compounds, especially carcinogenic benzene and formaldehyde, both at the wellhead and at distances that exceed legal setback distances from wellhead to residence. In some cases, concentrations exceeded federal safety standards by several orders of magnitude.”
  3. Drilling Waste: In Taranaki solid drilling waste is disposed of by spreading it onto land or burying it. These processes are called ‘land farming’ and ‘mix-bury-cover’. Both of these techniques are used on dairy farms.
  4. Produced Waste Water: Waste water is frequently of poor quality and can contain a range of pollutants including salts, hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive elements. In Taranaki produced water is either discharged into deep-well injection sites or into waterways.