science

More than half a million Americans live within three miles of oil and gas flares, study reveals


More than a half a million Americans are exposed to oil and gas flaring events, resulting in potential health risks due to the release of black carbon and other volatile organic compounds into the air.

Researchers at the University of California Las Angles and the University of Southern California identified three regions that produce the most activity, which includes sites in Texas, North Dakota and Montana

The team calculated some 535,000 people are currently living within three miles of these oil and gas flaring sites and roughly 210,000 located near sites that produce more than 100 nightly flare events in total.

It was also determined that a majority of the population living the potentially hazardous events are minorities who fall in the in high poverty bracket.

The burning off of excess natural gas, according to the team, has been associated with 50 percent higher odds of preterm births and has been found to increase cancer risk.

Researchers at the University of California Las Angles and the University of Southern California identified three regions that produce the most activity, which includes sites in Texas, North Dakota and Montana. A total of eight basins in the US have a number of sites

Researchers at the University of California Las Angles and the University of Southern California identified three regions that produce the most activity, which includes sites in Texas, North Dakota and Montana. A total of eight basins in the US have a number of sites

Researchers used data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration to define the boundaries of all oil and gas shale production areas in the contiguous United States. 

The data, updated in 2016, includes 47 shale plays within 28 basins that intersect 714 counties across 28 states.

Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist and assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California (USC), said: ‘Our findings show that flaring is an environmental justice issue.’

‘We found that a significant number of Black, Indigenous and Latinx people live near flaring. High rates of poverty and other barriers to health in rural areas—such as a lack of access to health care—could worsen the health effects of flaring-related exposures.’

Flaring is used during the exploration, production and processing of fossil fuels, and it is common in oil-producing areas where natural gas recovered with the oil cannot be used commercially. Studies into air quality around flaring sites have found a variety of hazardous pollutants are released

Flaring is used during the exploration, production and processing of fossil fuels, and it is common in oil-producing areas where natural gas recovered with the oil cannot be used commercially. Studies into air quality around flaring sites have found a variety of hazardous pollutants are released

It was also determined that a majority of the population living the potentially hazardous events are minorities who fall in the in high poverty bracket

It was also determined that a majority of the population living the potentially hazardous events are minorities who fall in the in high poverty bracket

Flaring is used during the exploration, production and processing of fossil fuels, and it is common in oil-producing areas where natural gas recovered with the oil cannot be used commercially.

Studies into air quality around flaring sites have found a variety of hazardous pollutants are released, including volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and black carbon.

Lara Cushing, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Fielding School of Public Health and co-lead of the study, said: ‘There is growing evidence linking residence near unconventional oil and gasoperations with negative health impacts for nearby residents, including impacts on fetal growth and preterm birth.’

Along with preterm births, the team also notes that the pollutants can lead to or exacerbate asthma and effect the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems, as well as cardiopulmonary problems and cardiovascular mortality.   

Pictured is the annual production of oil and gas at the three sites said to produce the most activity

Pictured is the annual production of oil and gas at the three sites said to produce the most activity

The university’s published a separate study in July 2020 that analyzed the effects of natural gas flaring with pregnancy.

The study found exposure to flaring at oil and gas production sites is associated with 50 percent  higher odds of preterm birth, compared with no exposure.

Women who lived within three miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of a preterm birth than mothers who did not live near wells. Their babies were also born weighing seven ounces lighter on average. 

‘This suggests that, in addition to flaring, other exposures related to oil and gas wells may also be adversely impacting pregnancy,’ the researchers said.

Approximately 55 percent of the women in the study population identified as Latina or Hispanic, and the odds of preterm birth among Hispanic women exposed to high levels of flaring was greater than the corresponding odds among non-Hispanic White women, who made up 37 percent of the study population. 

Nearly 60 percent of women in the study were on public health insurance (Medicaid) and 17 percent were foreign born.



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