We need oil and gas to keep the world moving, at least in the way that it has for the last couple hundred years. But drilling for, processing and using it undoubtedly has an impact on the environment and quite possibly our personal health. Perhaps you cannot separate the two. An article published by National Geographic, written by Jamie Smith Hopkins for the Center for Public Integrity, describes the results of a five-state study that "raises new questions" about dangerous chemicals kicked up by oil and gas well sites.
Who's Right, Who's Wrong
No one really knows at this point who is right and who is wrong when it comes to the health effects of oil and gas drilling-it's likely the answer can't be broken into "right" and "wrong" anyhow-especially with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has come to dominate oil-and-gas related headlines.
The results of scientific studies (some of which are privately funded by oil companies with the attendant strong possibility of bias), even those conducted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies, have not tended to provide overwhelming evidence that fracking is bad for our health.
But, for many ordinary citizens, especially those who live near oil and gas well sites, it's clear that something is going on, a "something" that has apparently given rise to Hopkins's list of health problems: people losing their sense of smell and taste, experiencing headaches, having breathing problems, suffering miscarriages, neuropathy, unusual cancers, and autoimmune diseases.
Possible Problems Raised by the New Study
The study, peer-reviewed and published in the journal Environmental Health, indicates the presence of a number of problems, including "sporadic emission spikes," where on a given day the level of chemicals in the air is much higher than normal, a phenomenon that might not be captured in average studies that only look at long-term averages. The study also indicates high levels of benzene, a toxic substance that according to the CDC can cause many of the health problems Hopkins lists, including cancer.
Sampling at the Level of Community Concerns
Perhaps the most important outcome of the study was the way in which the study was itself set up, in which scientists worked with citizens to obtain samples. On this point, Hopkins quotes study co-author and law professor Gregg Macey: "The key takeaway is we really need to start sampling at the scales dictated by community concerns, the same concerns that are sometimes lodged in county and state agencies as complaints but that are experienced daily."