Is there a relationship between proximity to natural gas wells and health?

by Alex Frumkin

There has been little research about the public health impacts of living near unconventional natural gas extraction activities. Rabinowitz et al. a (2015) aimed to assess a possible relationship by generating a health symptom survey of 492 people in households with ground-fed wells in an area of active natural gas drilling. The survey looked at the household’s proximity to gas wells and then the prevalence and frequency of reported dermal, respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and neurological symptoms. The study found that individuals who lived within 1 km of a gas well were twice as likely to experience upper respiratory systems than individuals in households more than 1 km away. No relationship found between well proximity and any of the other possible health conditions that this survey covered. Continue reading

Just Released! “Energy, Biology, Climate Change”

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Our newest book just Released! “Energy, Biology, Climate Change” and available at for $19.95.

The focus of this book is the interactions between energy, ecology, and climate change, as well as a few of the responses of humanity to these interactions. It is not a textbook, but a series of chapters discussing subtopics in which the authors were interested and wished to write about. The basic material is cutting-edge science; technical journal articles published within the last year, selected for their relevance and interest. Each author selected eight or so technical papers representing his or her view of the most interesting current research in the field, and wrote summaries of them in a journalistic style that is free of scientific jargon and understandable by lay readers. This is the sort of science writing that you might encounter in the New York Times, but concentrated in a way intended to give as broad an overview of the chapter topics as possible. None of this research will appear in textbooks for a few years, so there are not many ways that readers without access to a university library can get access to this information.

This book is intended be browsed—choose a chapter topic you like and read the individual sections in any order; each is intended to be largely stand-alone. Reading all of them will give you considerable insight into what climate scientists concerned with energy, ecology, and human effects are up to, and the challenges they face in understanding one of the most disruptive—if not very rapid—event in human history; anthropogenic climate change. The Table of Contents follows: Continue reading

Try Not to Live Too Close to a Fracked Well

by Emil Morhardt

If you happen to live within 1 km of a hydraulically fractured well in Pennsylvania, and you get your water supply from a well, you stand about twice as large a chance of having skin and upper respiratory problems than if you live 2 km or farther away; you have over 3 health symptoms, on average—people further away have only 1.6. Looked at another way,13% of people living near fracking operations have upper respiratory problems, versus 3% living farther away; and 39% of the same group of people have upper respiratory problems versus 18% living further away. That is the disturbing result of an epidemiological study of almost 500 people in an area of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, just published in a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Rabinowitz et al. 2014). Continue reading

Exposure to Cigarette and Biofuel Smoke May Negatively Affect the Height of Young Children

Various studies have proposed that exposure to carcinogenic fumes, traditional fuels, and biofuels may negatively affect the growth and development of children.  Especially within developing countries, childhood exposure to cigarettes, tobacco, fuels, and biofuels is widespread.  Kyu et al. (2009) specifically investigated whether or not the exposure of children under five years old to cigarette smoke and biofuels is correlated with their height relative to their age.  Using multilevel regression analyses, the researchers determined that exposure to maternal smoking negatively affected the height of the children in only three of the developing countries studied while biofuel exposure negatively affected height across all seven countries. Moreover, for children under five years old, biofuel exposure is connected with stunting and severe stunting in height.  Thus, this study demonstrated that such exposures to cigarettes and biofuels might hinder childhood growth for young children in developing countries. —Christina Mainero
Kyu, H.H., Georgiades, K., and Boyle, M.H., 2009. Maternal smoking, biofuel smoke exposure and child height-for-age in seven developing countries. International Journal of Epidemiology, 38, 1342–1350.

 In this study, Kyu et al. sought to examine the effects of maternal smoking and biofuel exposure on young children due to the rise of smoking and biofuel use in developing countries, the fact that maternal smoking may increase a child’s likelihood of exposure, the paucity of information regarding the effects of maternal smoking on children under five years old, and the increased use of biofuels in developing countries.  For the seven developing countries studied, data were collected between 2005 and 2007.  In setting up their sampling scheme, the researchers divided each country into clusters of roughly fifteen to twenty women.  Within each cluster, they measured the heights of the children and also conducted interviews with their mothers.  In some clusters, they questioned a subset of men regarding their daily activities and habits.  In doing this, the researchers were able to assess the effects of maternal smoking, exposure to smoking by other members of the house, and biofuel exposure on the height of the children.  Factors such as child age, child gender, breastfeeding initiation, mother’s age, mother’s educational history, estimated birth size of the child, household wealth and country acted as covariates.
Based on the data collected, Kyu et al. concluded that the children of women with fewer financial resources, less education, and more children tend to have increased smoking and biofuel exposure.  Additionally, their regression models indicated that maternal smoking correlated negatively with height in Cambodia, Namibia, and Nepal; correlated positively with child height in Moldova; and showed no significant correlation either way in the remaining countries.   Exposure to non-maternal smoking and biofuels, however, demonstrated a significant negative correlation with the height of young children. Moreover, biofuel exposure appears to be connected with stunting and severe stunting within all of the countries studied. 
However, the researchers also noted several limitations of this study.  Specifically, they mentioned the fact that there was no data regarding maternal smoking and biofuel exposure during pregnancy, which may be an important factor influencing the height of the children.  Furthermore, actual biofuel exposures were measured indirectly rather than directly based on the type of biofuel used for cooking and daily activities.  Additionally, the study lacked information regarding the duration of exposure.  Studies such as these, though important for looking into potential correlations, do not conclusively establish causation.  Yet, this study is significant because its conclusions suggested that there might be notable detrimental health effects associated with biofuel use as well as maternal smoking.  Such heath effects must be considered in evaluating whether or not biofuels are plausible alternatives to traditional, petroleum-based fuels.

Pharmaceutical Waste 2,4-dichlorophenol is Biodegradable by Pseudomonas Bacteria.

Pseudomonas alcaligenes was found to be an effective biodegrader of 2,4-dichloropjenol(DCP), a waste product of pharmaceutical industries, at pH 7 and 35 °C after ultraviolet light exposure . The chlorinated aromatic compound 2,4-dichlorophenol is an environmental pollutant that can be synthesized into larger phenols, pesticides, and herbicides. Pseudomonas alcaligenes extracted from sewage sludge were tested for growth and biodegradation based on various 2,4-DCP concentrations, UV radiation exposure, temperature at pH 7, and pH in 25 °C. The amount of 2,4 DCP that degraded from Pseudomonas alcaligenes  correlated significantly with increasing values of these four factors, in particular the amount of 2,4-DCP that degraded increased significantly after 144 hours of UV radiation exposure  (Elkarmi et al. 2009). The degradation of 2,4 DCP by Pseudomonas alcaligenes  would be highly effective in bioremediation programs for reducing the amount of pharmaceuticals in the environment, especially in sewage  treatment plants where most pharmaceuticals are not eliminated during the cleaning process. — Kevon White 
Elkarmi, Ali., Abu-Elteen K., Atta A., Abu-Sbitan N., 2009. Biodegradation of 2,4-dichlorophenol originating from pharmaceutical industries. African Journal of Biotechnology  8, 2558–2564.   

 Ali Z. Elkarmi and colleagues from Hashemite University extracted and identified Pseudomonas alcaligenes from the wastewater of two pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.  The sewage was centrifuged for 30 minutes to obtain 200 mg of sludge, which was then added to sterilized flasks containing 20 ml of chlorophenol enrichment media and 100 mg/l 2,4-dichlorophenol. The mixture along with a second mixture from 50 ml of nutrient broth and 0.5 ml of the first suspension incubated were incubated 30 °C for four days. Nutrient agar plates containing 100 ml/I 2,4-DCP were inoculated with 0.3 ml of the  second mixture and both were incubated at 37 °C for four days. The results were sent to the Jordan University hospital, which confirmed the identity of the bacterial species Pseudomonas alcaligenes. The colonies of Pseudomonas alcaligenes were placed in nutrient agar plates of 1 g/l cetrimide where they were tested for 2,4-DCP concentrations in increments of 20 mg/l starting from 120 mg/l to 300 mg/l.  Isolated colonies of Pseudomonas alcaligenes were then subjected to UV radiation for 24, 48, 72, and 96 hours in 2,4-DCP concentrations at increments of 20 mg/l starting from 240 mg/l to 400 mg/l.  The UV irradiated samples were then cultivated in a bioreactor were biodegradability of  340 mg/l  2,4-DCP was tested from temperatures of 25, 30, 35, and 40 °C and pH values ranging of 6.5, 7.0 and 8.0.  The final results were compared for statistical significance using one-way ANOVA test. 
Without UV radiation the amount of bacteria that grew in the 2,4-DCP culture decreased with increasing concentration. From 180 mg/l to 220 mg/l 2,4-DCP, the bacteria exhibited weak growth decreasing from  9.60  to 6.07 log10 of CFU/ml respectively. The amount of 2.4-DCP after UV radiation was added, however, increased the limit for tolerance and biodegradation of 2,4-DCP significantly; at a concentration of 200 mg/l of 2,4-DCP, the growth of bacteria increased from 8.40 mg/l to 9.08 mg/l log10 of CFU/ml. After UV radiation exposure the limit for the concentration of 2,4-DCP to decrease growth was raised to  380 mg/l at 6.80  log10 of CFU/ml. At a pH of 7.0, growths were best at a temperature of 35 °C after 168 hours. At a temperature of 25 °C, growths were best at a pH of 7.0 after 168. The ANOVA test indicated that there were significant correlations between pH, UV radiation, concentration of 2,4-DCP  and temperature. A possible use for the Pseudomonas alcaligenes would be in bioremediation and sewage treatment where pharmaceuticals are often not eliminated from the wastewater treatment process. 

Biofuels Significantly Reduce the Health Hazards Caused by Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Several previous studies have suggested that various fuels emit carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Ballesteros et al. (2009) examined the relationship between the amount of oil, the type of oil, and the carcinogenic potential of three biofuels and a conventional fuel.  The researchers conducted a chemical speciation of the sixteen most hazardous PAHs associated with fuel combustion using a newly developed method combining processes of thermal extraction, solid-phase micro-extraction (SPME), and GC/MS analysis.  The researchers found that using biofuels rather than conventional fuels reduced total PAH emissions as well as the risks to human health from these emissions.  Furthermore, they determined that PAH emissions depend on the oil used for the transesterfication process. —Christina Mainero
Ballesteros, R., Hernandez, J.J., Lyons, L.L., 2009.  An experimental study of the influence of biofuel origin on particle-associated PAH emissions. Atmospheric Environment 44, 930–938.

 Ballesteros et al. inspected the mutagenicity of the sixteen PAHs considered to be hazardous to human health.  To determine the impact on human health of the type and origin of vegetable oil used for transesterfication compared with a reference fuel, the researchers conducted a chemical speciation on these compounds.  Additionally, they collected data on the gaseous non-methane hydrocarbons emissions, the diesel particulate matter emissions, volatile organic matter emissions, mean particle diameter, and particle opacity for the biofuels and the reference fuel.  In order to properly compare the emissions for these different fuels, the researchers made sure that the exhaust gas recirculation ratio remained constant.  Moreover, they examined all of the fuels in two different operating modes: extraurban and urban.  The three biofuels used in this study were rapeseed methyl ester (RSM), waste cooking oil methyl ester (WCOM), and waste cooking oil ethyl ester (WCOE), which were then compared to the conventional reference fuel.
To accurately gauge the health risks associated with the different fuels, Ballesteros et al. used a conversion factor, called the toxicity equivalent factor (TEF).  This conversion factor provided them with a carcinogenic equivalence sum (KE) that represented the inherent carcinogenicity of each of these PAHs.  All three biofuels showed a reduction in KE, indicating that biofuel emissions are less hazardous to human health than conventional fuels.  For the RSM WCOM, and WCOE, there was a notable reduction in the emissions of the PAHs with higher molecular weights, which tend to have more carcinogenic potential.  Unlike the RSM, the biofuels originating from cooking waste oils emitted significantly higher levels of lighter PAHs than the conventional fuels.  However, the health risk to humans was still lower than that associated with the use of conventional fuels because PAHs with lower molecular weights tend to be far less carcinogenic than those with high molecular weights.  The researchers concluded that using biofuels not only reduces the overall amount of PAH emissions, but also diminishes negative health impacts when compared with conventional fuels.  Moreover, they determined that the type of oil used for the process of transesterfication significantly influences the emission of heavy or light PAHs, which, in turn, dictates their effects on human health.  Thus, this study suggested that certain biofuels may be less toxic to human health than conventional biofuels, advancing the case for biofuels as plausible alternatives to conventional fuel sources.

Biomass Fuel Combustion is a Potential Danger to Human Health in Cusco, Peru

Pearce et al. (2009) studied the use of biofuels for household energy in Cusco, determining that the combustion of these fuels resulted in potentially dangerous levels of PM2.5 and CO emissions.  Combined with the hypoxic stress of high-altitude living, this is a very real threat to human health.   The study concluded that the levels of PM2.5 emissions present in kitchens were 4.4 times higher than those in secondary rooms and 9.4 times higher than those in outside entryways.  Similarly, the CO concentrations were highest in kitchens, with concentrations averaging 4.8 times more than secondary rooms and 3.3 times more than outdoor entryways.  They found that the highest levels of CO and PM2.5 emissions occurred with the combustion of dung, followed by wood, kerosene, and gas, respectively.—Christina Mainero
Pearce, J., Aguilar-Villalobos, M., Rathbun, S., Naeher, L., 2009.  Residential exposures to PM2.5 and CO in Cusco, a high altitue city in the Peruvian Andes: A Pilot Survey. Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health 64, 278-282.

The goal of this study by Pearce et al. was to measure the average indoor and outdoor CO and PM2.5 emissions at 41 residences in Cusco during the preparation of meals in the morning, afternoon, and evening.  Measurements of CO and PM2.5 emissions were taken at breathing level to mimic human exposure to these pollutants.  The measurements were taken in three different locations in each residence—the kitchen, the room designated as the second most used room, and the front entryway outside each home.  To minimize any discrepancies, the concentration levels of both CO and PM2.5 were collected simultaneously.
Statistical analyses of the data on PM2.5 emissions demonstrated that emissions caused by the combustion of wood are significantly higher than those caused by kerosene, while those from dung are significantly higher than those caused by gas.  Furthermore, in secondary rooms, PM2.5 emissions from wood combustion were significantly higher than those from gas.  Similarly, wood emissions of CO in kitchens were significantly higher than gas emissions.  Overall, the median CO and PM2.5 emissions were highest for the combustion of dung, followed by wood, kerosene, and gas, respectively.  Kitchens, where the food preparation occurred, tended to have the highest concentrations of CO and PM2.5, followed by the secondary rooms and then the outdoor entryways.  Furthermore, the general trend seemed to show that the greatest concentration of pollutant emissions occurred in the morning, which the authors suggested was due to the fact that large meals tend to be prepared in the morning and simply reheated throughout the rest of the day in Cusco.
However, Pearce et al. noted that there were several limitations in their study, including the small sample size, the shortness of the data collection period, the lack of an even distribution of measurements across the different fuel types, and the fact that the measurements of pollutant concentrations did not actually measure the number of human exposures to CO and PM2.5 emissions.  Despite these limitations, this study is interesting in that it notes the potential dangers of the combustion of biofuels and fuels in the preparation of food, particularly in developing countries, such as Peru.