A substance believed to cause cancer in those exposed to it over an extended period of time is in the air near Marcellus Shale fracking sites, according to Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble.
"The levels of benzene really pop out. The amounts they were seeing were at levels of concern," said Gamble in describing the results of testing his department recently performed at well sites throughout Ohio County.
"The concerns of the public are validated," he added.
Photo by Casey Junkins
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble says benzene emissions at some natural gas drilling sites throughout the county are “at levels of concern.”
Gamble said he could not identify the specific wells his employees tested in Ohio County because the information is being sent to Michael McCawley, chairman of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University as part of his ongoing study on the matter. However, Gamble said there are well sites throughout Ohio County, from Valley Grove to West Liberty to Oglebay Park.
McCawley previously found high levels of benzene in the air near one Wetzel County well site, which he said were so bad he would recommend "respiratory protection" for those in the area.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some short-term symptoms of benzene exposure include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, headaches and tremors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains that high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
West Virginia law requires wells be drilled at least 625 feet away from an "occupied dwelling," but Gamble said this distance may not make much difference because the benzene is probably not coming from under ground.
"It is not necessarily what is coming out of the earth. They have a huge amount of equipment that runs - and they have huge numbers of diesel trucks that are going in and out the whole time," he said.
In addition to benzene, multiple legal advertisements over the past few years by natural gas producers confirm the "potential to discharge" various amounts of these materials into the air on an annual basis from the operations at the natural gas wells and compressor stations: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide equivalent, xylenes, toluene and formaldehyde.
"This is something that we need to keep track of because we are not sure how it will impact us over the long-term," Gamble said.
Though some remain concerned over how fracking will impact public water supplies, Gamble said his department does not receive many complaints about this. He said other than the air pollution, one of the major factors for those living near well sites involves the noise.
"It is not much of an issue when they are drilling out in rural areas where they could be miles away from residents. However, there are problems with the noise here," Gamble said.
To evaluate the health impacts of fracking on local residents, Gamble said his department is developing a website that should be up and running by early 2014. The tool will allow individuals to report non-identifiable data on specific health concerns and problems they may have occurring due to drilling activity in their area.
To establish this website and continue researching the impacts of shale gas drilling, Gamble's department will make use of a financial donation from the Elysian Fields Farm and Penny Miller of Wheeling.
"I own a farm close to a gas well on a neighbor's property, and I worry about the air quality. I would like to encourage land owners near a well, or those with a well, to financially support the health department in monitoring the health effects of the wells," said Miller.