High air pollution from fracking in Ohio county: Sensors pinpoint emissions missed by expensive EPA instruments

Some residents of Belmont County in eastern Ohio have long suffered from headaches, fatigue, nausea and burning sensations in their throats and noses. They suspected these symptoms were the result of air pollution from fracking facilities that dominate the area, but regulators dismissed and downplayed their concerns.

With the technical assistance of volunteer scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, MIT and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange, local advocacy groups set up their own network of low-cost sensors. They found that the region’s three EPA sensors were not providing an accurate picture: The sensors revealed concerning levels of air pollution, and correlations between local spikes and health impacts.

The results are published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Nestled in an Appalachian valley, Belmont has been booming with new infrastructure to extract and process natural gas. Fracking is known to emit pollutants including particulate matter and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene, which have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems. Lung and bronchus cancer have become the leading cause of cancer deaths in Ohio. A 2017 Yale Public Health analysis confirmed the need for additional monitoring and regulation for chemicals associated with unconventional oil and gas development.

Concerned about the fumes in certain areas of the community and the lack of information and transparency, two activist groups, Concerned Ohio River Residents and the Freshwater Accountability Project, wanted to set up a high-density monitoring network. After submitting their proposal to the Thriving Earth Exchange, which enables collaborations between community groups and volunteer scientists, they were paired with Garima Raheja, a PhD candidate who studies air pollution at Lamont-Doherty.

“We realized that the Thriving Earth Exchange program would give us valuable aid to validate the complaints we often receive from those living near pollution sources in a way that would provide credible and actionable data to improve air quality in the region,” said Lea Harper, managing director of Freshwater Accountability Project.

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