Dirk DeTurck had a years-old rash that wouldn’t go away, his wife’s hair came out in chunks and any time they lingered outside their house for more than an hour, splitting headaches set in.
They were certain the cause was simply breathing the air in Greenbrier, Arkansas, the rural community to which they'd retired a decade ago. They blamed the gas wells all around them. But state officials didn’t investigate.
So DeTurck leapt at the chance to help with research that posed a pressing question: What’s in the air near oil and gas production sites?
The answer — in many of the areas monitored for the peer-reviewed study, published today in the journal Environmental Health — is “potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures” that can make people feel ill and raise their risk of cancer.
“The implications for health effects are just enormous,” said David O. Carpenter, the paper’s senior author and director of the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment.
In 40 percent of the air samples, laboratory tests found benzene, formaldehyde or other toxic substances associated with oil and gas production above levels the federal government considers safe for brief or longer-term exposure, according to the study. Far above, in some cases.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America referred questions about the study to Energy In Depth, an outreach campaign it launched in 2009. Energy In Depth spokeswoman Katie Brown criticized the involvement of Global Community Monitor, a nonprofit that trained DeTurck and other volunteers to gather the samples.
“It’s difficult to see how Global Community Monitor, a group that dubiously claims no amount of regulation will ever make fracking safe, could make a constructive contribution within the scientific community," Brown said by email.
The study monitored air at locations in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.
It comes amid a growing body of research suggesting that the country’s ballooning oil and gas production — cheek-by-jowl with homes and schools — could be endangering the health of people nearby. The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News have been investigating this topic, mostly in the Eagle Ford Shale formation of South Texas, for the past 18 months.
A Yale University study released in September found that Pennsylvania residents living less than two-thirds of a mile from natural-gas wells were much more likely to report skin and upper-respiratory problems than people living farther away.
A Colorado School of Public Health analysis published in April found 30 percent more congenital heart defects in babies born to mothers in gas-well-intensive parts of that state than to mothers with no wells within 10 miles of their homes.
And a 2013 study for the state of West Virginia found benzene, a carcinogen, above levels considered safe by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry near four of seven gas well pads where air was sampled.
The findings come after years of little information beyond citizen complaints and industry reassurances. Scientists say the research is far from complete and more is urgently needed.
Researchers associated with the Yale and Colorado studies, for instance, noted that their findings don’t prove that gas production caused the health problems, but instead flag a potential link that needs further investigation.
“Research is just now beginning, really, to be done,” said Michael McCawley, interim chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences and author of the study for that state.
“Part of the problem seems to be a concerted effort, up until recently, to avoid asking the question,” said environmental physician Bernard D. Goldstein, a faculty emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh who served as an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official during the Reagan administration.
The beginning of a shift is under way.
The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says it is supporting nine studies in progress, from an analysis of asthma near shale gas sites to an examination of local residents’ health before, during and after a multi-well pad is developed. The agency is also conducting its own studies on chemical exposures that could be an issue for gas-extraction workers and people living near such sites.
The industry has been largely dismissive of the research already released.
“We have not seen credible studies showing natural gas production causes health effects,” Dan Whitten, a spokesman for trade group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, said by email. “Obviously, we are sympathetic to anyone with health concerns. Our members remain committed to the development of natural gas in a safe and responsible manner.”
The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But McCawley, with West Virginia University, said the industry group alerted researchers this summer that it would be funding a health-effects study.