Methane pollution poses serious risks to our health

March 25, 2020 12:15 am

As the oil and gas industry expands rapidly in Ohio, so does the risk of methane pollution. Methane is the primary component of natural gas and is emitted at all stages of the oil and gas supply chain. 

The climate warming impact of methane over a 20-year period is estimated to be at least 86 times that of carbon dioxide. According to a 2018 publication in the journal Science, 13 million metric tons of methane was emitted by the oil and gas industry in 2015, representing the climate warming equivalent of all emissions from coal-fired power plants operating in the United States in 2015 and more than that of all the emissions from cars operating in the United States in 2015.

Methane leaks occur both knowingly and unintentionally. Known releases (venting) occur during flowback after fracking, during routine maintenance of pipelines and compressors, and during liquified natural gas storage and transport. Methane also leaks due to equipment malfunction and disrepair, originating from both active and inactive wells. These purposeful and unintended losses substantially erode, and can even reverse the potential climate benefits of using natural gas instead of burning coal. 

The dangers of methane leakage are compounded by co-released gases, including ethane, benzene, xylene, toluene, nitrogen oxides, and hydrogen sulfide. These pollutants represent a significant threat to human health by directly contributing to ground-level ozone or smog. Smog can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate bronchitis and emphysema, especially for sensitive individuals including children, older adults, and those with other respiratory diseases. 

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America list of the top 20 “asthma capitals” in the entire country includes Dayton, Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Based on the prevalence of asthma, the number of emergency department visits due to asthma, and asthma-related fatalities, Dayton ranks second worst in the entire country and Cleveland ranks fifth worst, making Ohio citizens especially vulnerable to pollutants that intensify the symptoms of asthma. 

In addition to their adverse impact on respiratory health, the co-released gases include known human carcinogens and substances that can have adverse neurological and reproductive health effects. Moreover, particulate matter is also emitted which further exacerbates both respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Methane’s role in accelerating climate change directly impacts our health. Higher temperatures contribute to production of smog, forest fires and drought-related dust increase particulate pollution, and pollen seasons are longer and stronger. All these changes have an adverse impact on respiratory diseases. Extreme temperature fluctuations contribute to both heat-related and cold-related morbidity and mortality.

Natural gas losses are a waste of a limited natural resource. Based on data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, natural gas production in Ohio totaled 2.4 billion Mcf (thousand cubic feet) in 2018. The escape of only 4% of that production represents a loss of more than $300 million in corporate revenue. Investment in detecting and preventing leakage of methane is therefore not only beneficial from a health and climate perspective, but is also financially feasible.

In 2018 there were more than 47,000 active oil and gas wells in Ohio; over 2 million people in Ohio live within a half mile of at least one active well. Furthermore, millions of Americans live in the vicinity of abandoned wells with no regulations for monitoring. It is therefore critical that we — residents of Ohio, our lawmakers, the EPA, and especially those corporations who benefit from extraction — work together to minimize methane pollution. 

Both the Federal EPA and the Ohio EPA have the duty as well as the authority to protect Ohioans from fugitive methane emissions; they should use their regulatory power to do so. Corporations involved in production, transmission, and processing of natural gas should use common sense measures to minimize loss of methane, and in doing so demonstrate their regard for the health of their neighbors.

As citizens of Ohio, we should demand that the Federal EPA and Ohio EPA fulfill their stated mission: to ensure that we have clean air to breath, to reduce environmental risks based on the best available scientific information, and to provide environmental stewardship of our natural resources. Our health depends on it.

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Dr. William E. Katzin
Dr. William E. Katzin

Dr. William E. Katzin is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University, having earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1980 and his M.D. in 1983. Following training in anatomic and clinical pathology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, he practiced as a pathologist in the Cleveland area until 2018. He currently teaches at the CWRU School of Medicine where he is Associate Clinical Professor of Pathology and he lives in Cleveland Heights.