This is a bit of a by-product of my weekend’s research. I remembered a pretty weird novel that I once read to my daughter when she was little. Now I was curious if methane really made you crazy.
“Here,” he said, offering Zack the mouthpiece. “Take some of this. The methane in the desert wind is pretty poisonous. It does strange things to your head. Breathe it for too long and it will kill you.” Zack took some deep lungfuls of oxygen.Andy Griffiths, The Day My Butt Went Psycho
To make it short: it was not that way. Methane can displace oxygen in the air, with asphyxiating effects. And because methane is completely odorless, we do not notice its presence. In a closed environment that slowly fills up with methane, we would suffocate peacefully, due to displacement of the oxygen we breathe. That is why mine workers took canaries with them: birds were affected earlier, when methane was around, they went silent. The miners then would flee, to prevent suffocation, or to prevent being blown to bits. Methane is very combustible, very good at exploding when mixed with oxygen (or air) when even the tiniest of spark happens.
So in a lot of countries there is a safety measure in place: The gas intended for end customers has to have a bad smell. Various sulfur substances are used to make a “characteristic” gas stench, which makes us break open windows and (hopefully) prevents us from operating a light switch. This smelly help is for end users only. Industry workers work with methane gas without odor.
So for the consumer – me, heating water on my gas stove to enjoy a nice cup of tea in the Evening – everything is in the all-clear: Methane is completely harmless to human health.
True. As long as I don’t live near a processing facility, or an extraction site, or leave open the valve in my kitchen.
Toluene, xylene, benzene… not nice!
While it is true that “natural” gas/methane is not dangerous for human health, this is not the whole picture.
During extraction methane does not come up out of the earth pure. Exploration and extraction of oil and gas drive up and release a whole underworld full of substances at the same time, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and a long list of others. All of them at toxic levels. Oil refining and gas treatment need additional substances such as hydrogen sulfide, toluene, xylene and benzene. None of which are safe for board room environments, let alone living areas. Each of these pollutants has been independently linked to severe health problems in humans.
During their life cycle in the air, these pollutants also function as building blocks for small particles and ozone smog. People exposed to toxic air pollutants like these can experience serious health impacts, including damage to the immune system, and neurological, reproductive, developmental, respiratory system. So experts were not surprised that during COVID times, people around refineries and energy plant were more susceptible and had a higher death rate.
I collected some stories from extraction regions, contributed by engaged people, and found some scientific studies. If you want to skip them and learn about the next problem with methane, click here.
USA, Italy, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands
The Environment Protection Agency of the United States decided to look into the matter. A study published in December 2018 shows strikingly that there will be nearly 2,000 extra deaths each year caused by air pollution exposures from the oil and gas sector in 2025 and each year thereafter. According to the study, air pollution from the oil and gas sector is expected to most directly harm the people living near exploration activities, including residents of Alabama, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. (1) https://www.nrdc.org/experts/vijay-limaye/methane-leaks-oil-gas-exploration-health-nightmare
Fossil fuels are being extracted also in Europe. One paradigmatic, and quite unknown case, is the oil and gas extraction in Basilicata, a region in the South of Italy. Here the Italian multinational Eni and the French multinational Total are extracting and processing hydrocarbons with a significant impact on the environment and public health. An impact that was assessed only recently, after more than twenty years of operations of Eni in the region. Re:Common, the NGO that looked into that case, reported: “We hereby humble say thanks to the initiative of two of the impacted towns. They have pulled together a team of researchers from several institutes to do a comprehensive evaluation of the health impact of a processing facility named COVA, in the town of Viggiano. The results expose that between 2000 and 2014 the residents of Viggiano and Grumento Nova suffered the highest death and hospitalization rates in the region; the increased mortality and hospitalization due to circulatory system and respiratory system diseases could be related to the exposure to emissions of COVA, in particular for women. The study also exposed that pollutants emitted from the processing plant, like hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen oxides contaminate the air for several kilometers, up to bordering towns in direction east-and north-east.”
A great many communities and NGOs have worked to document the impact of fossil fuel extraction and processing also in poorer countries with rich resources, but weak national legislation, in terms of environment, human health and human rights protection. One more example is the decades long struggle of the community of Berezovka in Kazakhstan, close to the gigantic hydrocarbon field of Karachaganak. The data concerning air pollution here are striking: samples taken by villagers in 2004 showed elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, carbon disulfide, toluene, methylene chloride and acrylonitrile in the air. Each of the toxic substances found in the air sample is known to cause symptoms such as convulsions, nosebleeds, memory loss, vision loss, rashes and nervous system damage. Villagers report suffering from each of these maladies.
But also in Europe, in the law abiding Netherlands, some 200 km north east from the International Peace Court, there is the Dutch province Groningen. In 1959 an enormous gas field was found near Slochteren. In 4 years the whole in the Netherlands had a distributor net built to most household doors, and all coal mines (which were 300 km south of Groningen) were abandoned. This was a massive improvement for air quality, as LNG burns cleaner than coal. So far, so good.
But the release of methane out of the high pressure pockets of the earth crusts in the 65 years that followed, had consequences. The earth crusts, it turned out, readjust spastically. Humans call that earthquakes. These are not deep ones, the pockets are “high up” geophysicists say. And they are not so strong (most are <3,5) that they make global headlines. But they are many. And the sloppy peat of Groningen acts like a jelly pudding, so exacerbates the ground movement during the quake. Houses and roads suffer. The government has a very laborious complaint procedure that seems biased towards the oil industry. So most people got no or hardly compensation or help. In COVID times, these people had to stay at home in homes they feared could collapse any minute. So the mental health of these 183.000 people is not good, and a lot of people move to another part of the country – if they can financially.
One positive note out of this story, might be the life of the company that ran the coal mines (DSM, DeStaatMijnen). They decided to focus on chemical uses and chemical innovation of coal and tar related products. In the 65 years they have evolved into a very sustainably oriented company, that has produces enzymes for better food and bio-ethanol, paint components and Dyneema (from which bullet proof vests are woven). This company proves a point that companies can change for the better.
With all those stories about health risks from “natural” gas extraction, one does not get the impression that the fossil fuel plants and their mother companies were helpful in finding the problems nor in solving them. Sadly, the fossil fuel industry in general seems to be reluctant to show responsibility for the people around where they extract. That is my personal conclusion from these stories
Global heating: oak processionary, malaria, ozone pollution…
Like I found out – see the previous chapter – methane is currently the main contributor to the climate crisis. And the changing climate of course has various dangerous impacts on our health. Extreme weather events such as stronger hurricanes, droughts, and heatwaves are not good for public health, as you can imagine.
But Climate Change also causes or increases diseases, from the more abundant itches of the Oak Processionary Moth to malaria which now kills more and more people. Climate change also interferes with the seasonal presence of allergenic pollen in the atmosphere by prolonging these periods. Asthma patients have more and more trying times. On top of that Climate Change alters the concentration and distribution of air pollutants and it can increase levels of ground level ozone, also known as smog, exacerbating asthma and respiratory diseases.
Methane adds a cherry on top of that: globally, increased methane emissions are responsible for half of the observed rise in tropospheric ozone levels. And ozone air pollution is responsible for about 1 million premature respiratory deaths globally.
All in all there is a lot missing in the vision of a healthy sensible fuel we see in some ads, isn’t it?
Again, it does not look good for my gas stove!
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