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Harmful Air Pollutants Build Up Near Oil And Gas Fields

Air Quality: During wintertime, concentrations of volatile organic compounds near Utah oil and gas fields can exceed urban levels

by Deirdre Lockwood
March 25, 2014

Air Monitor
Credit: Chelsea Thompson
NOAA researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher Detlev Helmig (right) prepare a tethered balloon that will collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin.

Dangerously high concentrations of air pollutants are threatening an unexpected place—rural Utah. During wintertime periods when air in the atmosphere tends to stagnate, a research team has found that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from oil and gas wells in Utah’s Uintah Basin reach levels exceeding those in U.S. cities (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2014, DOI: 10.1021/es405046r). The pollutants include benzene, a carcinogen, and compounds that are precursors of ozone, which can cause respiratory problems.

Ozone is a component of smog that’s produced when VOCs, such as those in vehicle exhaust, react with nitrogen oxide compounds in the presence of light. As a result, high ozone levels are typically found in cities. But several years ago, researchers began observing high concentrations of ozone in the Uintah Basin. Wintertime ozone levels in ambient air in the basin often exceed Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards.

The Uintah Basin is one of the largest oil- and gas-producing regions in the U.S., with more than 10,000 wells in operation. Detlev Helmig, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his colleagues, including researchers at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, suspected that VOCs leaking from these oil and gas wells might be causing the ozone pollution. So, over two winter months in 2012 and 2013, they used gas chromatography to measure VOC concentrations in ambient air at a site on the northern edge of the basin’s most extensive gas field. They also collected air samples at a range of altitudes in the atmosphere using tethered balloons and analyzed the samples in the lab.

They measured methane and a suite of hydrocarbon VOCs that are released by oil and gas production. These include light alkanes, such as ethane and propane, and the aromatic VOCs benzene and toluene, which are directly toxic to humans. The team also measured ozone using an ultraviolet absorption monitor.

During several, multiple-day periods with substantial snow on the ground, they found that most of the light alkane VOCs built up to levels that are 10 to 100 times as great as concentrations in major U.S. cities. Helmig notes that snow cover drives this buildup: It prevents the ground from heating up, which slows surface air from mixing with colder, clean air from higher in the atmosphere. As a result, a layer of air about 50 to 100 m deep stagnates at the surface, accumulating pollutants. These periods coincided with ozone levels that exceeded EPA air quality standards.

The researchers estimated that total annual VOC emissions at the site are equivalent to those of about 100 million cars.

Throughout the study period, the researchers found that benzene levels frequently exceeded 1.4 ppb by volume, a health-based benchmark for chronic benzene exposure. However, because benzene is a carcinogen, the EPA does not define any safe threshold for it, says Lisa M. McKenzie, a public health researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver.

“This is quite amazing,” says Bernhard Rappenglück, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Houston. He notes that despite the basin’s sparse population, these conditions raise health concerns for people working at the wells and living in the area.

Other oil- and gas-producing regions are experiencing similar problems, Helmig says. High ozone levels have also been observed in Wyoming, and recent studies by NOAA have linked oil and gas emissions to summertime ozone production in the Colorado Front Range. Last month, Colorado tightened oil and gas development regulations to require operators to fix leaks and capture 95% of their hydrocarbon emissions, including VOCs.



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victoria palmier (March 28, 2014 7:55 AM)
This is so dangerous,and we hear about it after the fact! I was called to answer phone survey,all about clean coal? and safe fracking? and did I think BP was doing a hell of a job Brownie? cleaning up? and did I think the fracking people were going to pay land owners a fair price for there land to frack on? and help them if something went wrong?ie water supply and unexpected cancers? I said NO to ALL and it was a good half hour phone call! I wonder if there's something the average joe can do to learn about where these oil companies are going to strike next and is there a petition we can sign to stop it! I am a registered voter in the great state of New Mexico,and I would like this practice STOPPED!! Thank You, Victoria Palmier
JohnDavidson (March 29, 2014 9:34 AM)
Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence: Third Edition

This sorta says it all

These limits generally are based on assessments of health risk and calculations of concentrations that are associated with what the regulators believe to be negligibly small risks. The calculations are made after first identifying the total dose of a chemical that is safe (poses a negligible risk) and then determining the concentration of that chemical in the medium of concern that should not be exceeded if exposed individuals (typically those at the high end of media contact) are not to incur a dose greater than the safe one.

So OSHA standards are what is the guideline for what is acceptable ''SAFE LEVELS''


All this is in a small sealed room 9x20 and must occur in ONE HOUR.

For Benzo[a]pyrene, 222,000 cigarettes.

"For Acetone, 118,000 cigarettes.

"Toluene would require 50,000 packs of simultaneously smoldering cigarettes.

Acetaldehyde or Hydrazine, more than 14,000 smokers would need to light up.

"For Hydroquinone, "only" 1250 cigarettes.

For arsenic 2 million 500,000 smokers at one time.

The same number of cigarettes required for the other so called chemicals in shs/ets will have the same outcomes.

So, OSHA finally makes a statement on shs/ets :

Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)...It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded." -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec'y, OSHA.

Why are their any smoking bans at all they have absolutely no validity to the courts or to science!

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