Unconventional natural gas development (UNGD), which includes the processes of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from unconventional reservoirs such as shale, has dramatically expanded since 2000. In parallel, concern over environmental and community impacts has increased along with the threats they pose for health. Shale gas reservoirs are present on all continents, but only a small proportion of global reserves has been extracted through 2016. Natural gas production from UNGD is highest in the United States in Pennsylvania, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. But unconventional production is also in practice elsewhere, including in eighteen other U.S. states, Canada, and China. Given the rapid development of the industry coupled with its likelihood of further growth and public concern about potential cumulative and long-term environmental and health impacts, it is important to review what is currently known about these topics.
The environmental impacts from UNGD include chemical, physical, and psychosocial hazards as well as more general community impacts. Chemical hazards commonly include detection of chemical odors; volatile organic compounds (including BTEX chemicals [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene], and several that have been implicated in endocrine disruption) in air, soil, and surface and groundwater; particulate matter, ozone, and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in air; and inorganic compounds, including heavy metals, in soil and water, particularly near wastewater disposal sites. Physical hazards include noise, light, vibration, and ionizing radiation (including technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials [TENORMs] in air and water), which can affect health directly or through stress pathways. Psychosocial hazards can also operate through stress pathways and include exposure to increases in traffic accidents, heavy truck traffic, transient workforces, rapid industrialization of previously rural areas, increased crime rates, and changes in employment opportunities as well as land and home values. In addition, the deep-well injection of wastewater from UNGD has been associated with increased seismic activity.
These environmental and community impacts have generated considerable concern about potential health effects and corresponding political debate over whether UNGD should be promoted, regulated, or banned. For several years after the expansion of the industry, there were no well-designed, population-based studies that objectively measured UNGD activity or associated exposures in relation to health outcomes. This delay is inherent after the introduction of new industries, but hundreds of thousands of wells were drilled before any health studies were completed. By 2017, there were a number of important, peer-reviewed studies published in the scientific literature that raised concern about potential ongoing health impacts. These studies have reported associations between proximity to UNGD and pregnancy and birth outcomes; migraine headache, chronic rhinosinusitis, severe fatigue, and other symptoms; asthma exacerbations; and psychological and stress-related concerns. Beyond its direct health impacts, UNGD may be substantially contributing to climate change (due to fugitive emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas), which has further health impacts. Certain health outcomes, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, cannot yet be studied because insufficient time has passed in most regions since the expansion of UNGD to allow for latency considerations. With the potential for tens of thousands of additional wells across large geographic areas, these early health studies should give pause about whether and how UNGD should proceed. Citing health concerns, several U.S. states and nations in Europe have already decided to not allow UNGD.