While John Horgan’s government has been using billions of public dollars to improve profitability of fossil fuel producers, University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) professor Élyse Caron-Beaudoin has been examining detrimental health effects of natural gas production on people living near BC gas fields.
Dr. Caron-Beaudoin specializes in toxicology and researches anthropogenic pressures on public health. She investigated associations between fracking and birth outcomes in Northeastern British Columbia and is currently investigating gestational exposure to environmental contaminants associated with unconventional natural gas exploitation and their endocrine disrupting potential.
In 2017, the professor led a pilot study of health risks facing pregnant women in the Peace River area because of fracking. Dr. Caron-Beaudoin said that the work raised “a little red flag.”
Over the course of five days, Caron-Beaudoin’s team collected urine samples from 29 pregnant women living in the Peace River Valley, an area with hundreds of actives gas wells.
The team measured the levels of two byproducts of benzene, a carcinogen linked to health problems including cancer.
One of the byproducts was found at slightly higher-than-normal levels compared to the Canadian population, but the other occurred at rates 3.5 times that.
For the 15 Indigenous women who took part in the study, the rate was six times higher than the general Canadian population.
“We were surprised and not surprised,” Caron-Beaudoin said, because studies from the United States had also found elevated levels of the markers in pregnant women near gas wells, but not at rates quite as high.
In 2016, John Hopkins University scientists examined health effects of gas production in Pennsylvania. The study concluded there was evidence that unconventional natural gas development may impact human health. The authors explain production methods and potential problems:
Unconventional natural gas development is a large-scale multi-stage process. Developers use diesel equipment to clear land for well pads, transport materials, and drill multiple wells per pad. Directional drilling, first vertically and then horizontally, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) differentiate this process from conventional development. Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting millions of liters of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the borehole causing fractures in the shale formation. Fracturing fluids, flowback and produced water, and natural gas then flow to the surface for collection and use. Gas is sometimes flared, releasing pollutants. Wells produce natural gas at high rates for the first year, with a rapid decline over the first three years.
Prior studies have demonstrated environmental impacts from the various stages of unconventional natural gas development including pollution of air, surface water, groundwater, and soil as recently reviewed. Truck traffic, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and production can generate diesel particulate matter, fine particulate matter, methane, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds, which are also ozone precursors. Some of these pollutants have been associated with adverse birth outcomes including low or reduced birth weight and preterm birth. PM2.5 and ozone are regional air pollutants, so women living long distances from unconventional natural gas development could experience effects.
Expectant mothers could also be exposed to water pollution from unconventional natural gas development. A recent study identified 2-n-butoxyethanol – a chemical found in flowback water from the process, which might be a general indicator of its contamination – in household well water in Pennsylvania.
…A recent study in Colorado reported that density of and proximity to natural gas wells were associated with congenital heart and neural tube defects… There is an unpublished study that found mothers living near unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania gave birth to infants with increased prevalence of low birth weight, low Apgar scores, and small for gestational age...
Dr. Caron-Beaudoin was involved in another study released in 2021.
A new U of T Scarborough study has found that those living close to natural gas wells are exposed to higher levels of certain organic pollutants in their homes.
The study looked at levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the air and drinking water in homes of pregnant women living in a region of northeastern British Columbia.
“There’s very little research about indoor air quality in regions with a lot of unconventional natural gas exploitation,” says Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor in the department of health and society at U of T Scarborough and lead author of the study.
For the study, 85 pregnant women from the Peace River Region of B.C. were recruited and passive air samplers were placed in their homes. Water samples were also taken from their kitchen taps. Researchers found that forty out of the 47 VOCs tested for were detected in air samples, while three out of 40 VOCs tested for were detected in water samples.
VOCs are organic chemicals, some of which have negative short and long-term health effects. They are released by a variety of products and industrial processes.
The researchers also looked at how many natural gas wells were located near the home as well as the distance. They found that the amount and proximity of natural gas wells to the home were linked to higher levels of certain VOCs…
THMs in particular stood out. More than 60 per cent of study participants were found to be above the 95th percentile of exposure levels compared to the Canadian average.
“These levels are really high,” says Caron-Beaudoin. “For some of the participants, it was even over the guidelines for safe drinking water, so we had to contact them to let them know.”
She adds that acetone and chloroform are used as solvents in fracking fluid, while THMs occur when chlorine used to disinfect water reacts with natural organic matter. THMs levels tend to be higher in areas close to natural gas exploitation because greater amounts of wastewater are generated during the extraction process…
Caron-Beaudoin currently leads the only research group that is actively looking at the potential health impacts linked to natural gas exploitation in Canada. As one of the largest global producers of natural gas, she says more research needs to be done in Canada on its potential health effects.
The area of northeastern British Columbia where the research participants are located will also be home to a massive new gas plant that could increase the number of wells in the area to more than 100,000.
“This is happening with very little data on exposure levels – including air and water quality,” she says. “There’s currently no monitoring program, and as a result, no way to check the health status of people living near these wells.” [emphasis added]
Dr. Caron-Beaudoin’s statement in the final part of that excerpt ought to end the political careers of a few BC politicians. But, it will not. Leaders of both the NDP and the BC Liberals have consciously ignored health risks for years because they are determined to increase fossil fuel production, regardless of negative consequences.
To put money into corporate pockets, politicians made the lands of northeast BC a sacrifice zone and victimized permanent residents.
To Indigenous people of the region, it is an example of 21st century colonialism.
Potential health impacts of fracking in B.C. worry Dawson Creek physicians, The Narwhal, 2019:
…And while plans to further develop gas plays in northeastern B.C. are celebrated at the government level as ensuring an economic windfall, [Dawson Creek Family Physician Dr. Ulrike] Meyer says a wave of health impacts are sweeping the region without adequate monitoring and research.
…Meyer also replies decisively when asked about the changes she would like to see as a physician.
“We should be able to test the canaries in the coal mines who might be getting symptoms from exposure to toxins. We should have a fund provided by the oil and gas industry to do toxicology studies on them. I think we should use a top-down approach: test the humans and animals, and the environment — because we breathe the air, we drink the water and are part of the web of life.”
In addition to degrading human health, natural gas production threatens the Earth. There are still many climate change deniers working to prevent effective Climate Action. Some are paid by vested interests; others are fools who refuse to accept the strong scientific consensus. But reality is persistent.
The New York Times states many of the most-polluting operations escape public scrutiny.
According to a new analysis of the latest emissions data disclosed to the Environmental Protection Agency, five of the industry’s top ten emitters of methane, a particularly potent planet-warming gas, are little-known oil and gas producers
The consequences of oil and gas production are widespread, as the Washington Post reports:
A fatal virus and a massive economic downturn did not stop planet-warming gases in the atmosphere last year from rising to their highest levels in human history, researchers say. Barely a year after the coronavirus grounded planes, shuttered factories and brought road traffic to a standstill, the associated drop in carbon emissions is all but undetectable to scientists studying our air.
Categories: Natural Gas