At each stage of unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD or “fracking”), emissions that can affect human health are released into the air. If you live within a 3-mile radius of any type of UOGD operations, you may be particularly affected by air pollution.

Common air pollutants around UOGD sites include:

  • Toxic chemicals and particulate matter (PM) from truck traffic exhaust.
  • Toxic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, formaldehyde, and other hydrocarbons from condensate tanks, dehydrators, wastewater impoundment pits, and pipelines associated with UOGD.
  • Toxic chemicals from fugitive emissions, blowdowns, and accidents at compressor stations.
  • Volatile organic chemical releases from flaring, a process used to burn off excess gas.
  • Silica dust from “frac sand,” which is widely used to hold open fractures created in rock during the UOGD process.

How Air Pollution Affects You

People who are exposed to high levels of polluted air from UOGD (“fracking”) can experience many health effects, and children are more at risk than adults. Researchers report that some health problems associated with breathing bad air can happen right away:

  • Burning eyes
  • Sore throat
  • Stomach pain and nausea
  • Headaches
  • Tingling/numbness in extremities

Researchers are also studying other long-term effects from air pollution such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and poor birth outcomes.

Source: NRDC


If you live near UOGD activities and are concerned about air quality, there are ways to monitor potential air pollution in your environment. For some residents, EHP recommends the use of Speck air quality monitors and SUMMA canisters.

  • Speck air quality monitors: EHP provides small, self-operating air quality monitoring machines called “Speck monitors” to individuals living within a 3-mile radius of unconventional oil and gas development (“fracking”). Speck monitors measure particulate matter (PM), which is a potentially dangerous mixture of small particles and liquid droplets found in the air. PM comes from many sources including industrial sites, fires, and vehicle exhaust. Inhaling too much PM can impair lung function, aggravate asthma symptoms, and cause high blood pressure and heart attacks.

    Speck monitors are provided to qualified residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania and surrounding counties (if outside of this area, please contact EHP for more information) at no charge for approximately 32 days. Ideally, the monitoring takes place in conjunction with a health assessment by EHP’s Nurse Practitioner. Speck monitors are used both inside and outside homes. After a month of automatic readings from the monitor, EHP gathers the information, prepares a report about air quality for the resident, and makes recommendations for protecting health if contamination is a concern.

    Speck monitors are generously provided to EHP by Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab. Click here to learn more about how EHP and residents can work together using Speck monitors to assess and potentially limit exposure to air pollution. 
  • SUMMA canister: SUMMA canisters are another tool residents can use to monitor volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals near industrial sites. VOCs are common air pollutants that are released from many sources, including oil and gas development. Long-term exposure to VOCs can damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Short-term exposure can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment. 

Air sampling with SUMMA canisters can take place during different phases of UOGD development, or during events like venting, blowdowns, or accidents. Sampling with the canisters takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 24 hours, depending on the circumstances.

SUMMA canisters cost approximately $200 per use and can be ordered through ALS testing services provider. Though EHP cannot provide the testing for free, they can assist with the testing process and educate residents about the significance of test results. 

For more information about Speck monitors or SUMMA canister testing, call our office at 724.260.5504.

What You Can Do

In addition to monitoring air quality near your home, there are many other ways to protect yourself from the potentially harmful effects of air pollution:

  • Contact EHP for help: Our Family Nurse Practitioner serves the needs of both adults and children whose health may be affected by UOGD (“fracking”). She is available by appointment for both home and office visits and makes referrals to appropriate health specialists on an as needed basis. Please visit our Health Issues page for more information.
  • Use an air purifier: There are many types of air filters for home use. EHP recommends the Austin Air Healthmate HM 400 because it removes chemicals, small particles, odors, and dust from inside air. This portable unit can easily be moved from room to room and works best in homes that are well insulated. The cost of running the unit is about 15 cents an hour and filters last for about 3 years. EHP offers a $100 discounted price for the Healthmate 400. Please contact EHP for a coupon code. 
  • Remove avoidable indoor air pollutants
    • Keep your home as free of dust as possible since harmful gases and particles can adhere to dust particles.
    • Do not allow smoking indoors.
    • Avoid the use of pesticides, air fresheners, or other harmful chemicals inside your home.
    • Read all labels on cleaning supplies and household products. When possible, choose products that do not contain harsh chemicals, fragrances, irritants and flammable ingredients.
    • Use alternatives to harsh chemical cleansers. For example, baking soda is good for scrubbing and a mix of vinegar and water can clean glass.
    • Clean or dust using damp, disposable cloths to reduce the chance that contaminants will end up back in your air. Work from the top down.
    • Vacuum rather than sweep with a broom to reduce airborne particles. Vacuum at least once a week and use a HEPA filter in your vacuum to remove as many particles from the air as possible.
    • Avoid bringing contaminated dirt and dust into your home by removing shoes, coats, and hats when you come indoors. Ask guests to do the same.
    • Make sure all appliances such as space heaters, ranges, furnaces, fireplaces, water heaters, and clothes dryers are properly ventilated to the outdoors.
    • Do not idle a car in an attached garage. Exhaust fumes are harmful and can enter your home from the garage.
    • Keep windows and doors closed and use an air conditioner if you have one, to help keep outdoor air outside.
    • Install carbon monoxide detectors in the parts of your house where you spend a lot of time, especially near bedrooms. Be sure to change the batteries when necessary. 
  • Pay attention to the weather: Did you know that weather has an effect on local air quality? This can be especially true if you live downwind and within two miles of a source of UOGD (“fracking”) pollution like a well pad, compressor station, processing station, or produced water pond. On days that are sunny with no wind, pollution rises quickly away and is less likely to affect your air quality. On cloudy days with no wind, pollution stays closer to the ground and can result in unhealthy air. The chart below provides more detail about how the weather affects air quality:

    Use weather forecasts to predict whether upcoming days will have good, moderate or poor air quality based on the wind direction and the location of nearby facilities. Remember, weather forecasts report wind direction by where the wind is coming from not where it’s blowing to. On days where bad air quality is likely, close windows and go elsewhere if possible. If you are home when the air is unhealthy, limit your activities. During very unhealthy conditions, stay indoors.

More weather resources:

  • Watch our short video “How’s the Weather?” to learn more about how weather impacts local air quality:
  • Click here to read an overview about how weather impacts air pollution.
  • This link can help you calculate how the weather may be affecting your air.
  • This document provides detailed charts for estimating how much pollution you may be exposed to.

Learn More:

Flaring near home. Photo courtesy of Bob Donnan.