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Study: Oil, Gas Emissions Affect Pa. Health

Doctor: ‘Basically, we need to stop burning fossil fuels’

By Danielle M. Smith - Public News Service
The Tube City Almanac
July 13, 2023
Posted in: State & Region

A new study sheds light on the urgent need for policies to reduce emissions from U.S. oil and gas production, showing the public health effects are costing billions of dollars.

The research estimated in 2016, in the U.S. alone, oil and gas-related pollution caused $77 billion in health damages, contributing to 7,500 early deaths and more than 400,000 asthma exacerbations.

Dr. Barbara W. Brandom, a retired professor of pediatric anesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Concerned Health Professionals of Pennsylvania, said she saw firsthand the impact of poor air quality on children's health because asthmatic kids had complications with anesthesia.

“Basically, we need to stop burning fossil fuels,” she said.

Brandom said the study amplifies the growing calls for robust policies and regulations to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry.

“Any reduction in methane that’s released will be accompanied by less hazardous air pollutants, and hopefully less PM 2.5 and less things that will produce the ozone,” Brandom said.

Pennsylvania ranks in the top five among all U.S. states for pollution-related health concerns. Brandom said states with fewer gas-burning cars, and which are switching to electric vehicles and sources of renewable energy, are healthier than Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing tougher regulations on methane emissions from oil and gas production.

Dr. Edward Ketyer, a pediatrician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility of Pennsylvania, said the study looked at three important air contaminants from oil and gas activities: nitrogen oxides, ground level ozone, and fine particulate matter. He said the three constituents of oil and gas pollution cause a lot of harm.

Natural gas production is one of the largest emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, Ketyer said.

“The study also shows that aggressive action to lower greenhouse-gas emissions, especially methane emissions, with new legislation that’s now being proposed can help solve climate change and also reduce illnesses and deaths from air pollution,” Ketyer reported. “So it’s a win-win.”

A report from last fall argued that flaring — the process of burning off methane at well sites instead of capturing it — is not as efficient as it needs to be to reduce methane pollution.

Ketyer said study did not investigate the potential harmful health consequences of other prominent and hazardous air pollutants present in Pennsylvania’s oil and gas operations also believed to cause harmful health effects, including volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, radioactive elements and toxic fracking chemicals that become airborne during drilling and fracking.

Danielle M. Smith is a producer for Public News Service, where this story first appeared. An award-winning radio journalist/personality with more than a decade of experience in broadcast media, she is a former audio journalist with American Urban Radio Networks and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks who also hosts a weekly community affairs show “Good News” on WGBN (1360 AM/98.9 FM).

Originally published July 13, 2023.

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