NEW RESEARCH: Study of natural gas flaring finds high risks to babies

Leigh Hooper, USC News

PRESS COVERAGE: New York Times via Reuters, Houston Chronicle, Environmental Health News

Researchers from USC and UCLA have found that women living near natural gas and oil wells that use flaring to burn off excess gas face a 50% greater risk of premature birth than women with no exposure.

Researchers examining 23,487 live births in Texas found exposure among pregnant women to a high volume of flaring events was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure.
Photo: Shutterstock

“Our study finds that living near flaring is harmful to pregnant women and babies,” said Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We have seen a sharp increase in flaring in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, and this is the first study to explore the potential health impacts.”
Flares, which can burn for weeks at a time, release harmful chemicals such as benzene as well as fine particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and black carbon. Several of these combustion-related pollutants are linked to a higher risk of preterm birth and reduced birthweight in other contexts.

The research appears July 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study examined 23,487 live births to women living within the Eagle Ford region between 2012 to 2015. The Eagle Ford Shale geological formation, measuring 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, is one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the country due to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” In a previous study, the research team estimated the area was subject to more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016.

Latinas impacted the most by higher flaring numbers

The preterm birth rate was 14% among pregnant women exposed to a high number of flares, researchers found. Babies born prematurely – before the 37th completed week of pregnancy — may suffer complications such as immature lungs, difficulty regulating body temperature, poor feeding and slow weight gain.

The researchers used satellite observations to measure flaring activity because systemic reporting of flaring is lacking. They adjusted for other known risk factors for preterm birth in their analysis, including age, smoking, insurance status and access to prenatal care, and concluded that exposure to a high amount of flaring was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure. A high amount of flaring was defined as 10 or more nightly flare events within 3 miles of the pregnant woman’s home.

“Women who identified as Latina or Hispanic in our study were exposed to more flaring and more likely to see an increased risk of preterm birth, raising environmental justice concerns about the oil and gas boom in south Texas,” said Lara Cushing, an environmental health scientist with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who co-led the study with Johnston. “Our study adds to the evidence that oil and gas development is negatively impacting birth outcomes and suggests stricter regulation of the industry is needed.”

Women who lived within 3 miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of a preterm birth than mothers who did not live near wells. Their babies were also born weighing 19.4 grams, or seven ounces, lighter on average. This suggests that, in addition to flaring, other exposures related to oil and gas wells may also be adversely impacting pregnancy, the researchers said.

Flaring is largely unregulated, underreported

The majority (55%) of the women in the study population identified as Latina or Hispanic, and the odds of preterm birth among Hispanic women exposed to high levels of flaring was greater than the corresponding odds among non-Hispanic White women, who made up 37% of the study population. Nearly 60% of women in the study were on public health insurance (Medicaid) and 17% were foreign born.

Amid an oil boom in recent years, the United States has been responsible for the highest number of flares of any country, flaring an estimated 14.1 billion square meters of natural gas in 2018. Eighty percent of flaring is occurring in Texas and in North Dakota shale plays, where much of the U.S. fracking occurs. That said, according to researchers, flaring largely remains underreported and unregulated.

In addition to Johnston and Cushing, other authors of the study include Kate Vavra-Musser, Khang Chau and Meredith Franklin, all of USC.
The study was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Photo credit: iStock

NEW INFOGRAPHIC: The Impacts of Natural Gas on Public Health and the Environment

The Community Engagement Program on Health and Environment has collaborated with longtime partners of T.H.E. Impact Project to produce this infographic that shares science on, and realities that frontline environmental justice communities experience when living, working, and playing near natural gas extraction, production, and distribution processes.

“Important conversations are happening throughout Southern California about our energy future and the climate crisis.  We hope this infographic provides communities with access to key scientific information to engage in improving the environmental health of the region,” said Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventive medicine and Director of the Community Engagement program.

Click here to find the full length graphic in English and Spanish with associated research article collection and printable PDF handouts.

This infographic brings together a lot of complex information about natural gas and makes it understandable and meaningful to many – especially to those of us whose health is most negatively impacted by air pollution.

Sylvia Betancourt, Director, Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma

We are thankful to have partnered with USC Environmental Health Centers to create this infographic that not only makes a complex system easier to understand, the health studies also help debunk the harmful lies and greenwashing the fossil fuel industry is peddling in our communities.

Taylor Thomas, Research and Policy Analyst, East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice

“For years, natural gas operations have brought harm to communities across the world. For us, in the Inland Empire, we have felt first hand how relying on natural gas for the just transition of the transportation sector endangers us and continues to create the same pattern of environmental injustice. We are excited to continue working in good company with our partners on this issue.”

Andrea Vidaurre, Policy Analyst, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

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NEW PUBLICATION: Community engaged participatory youth air monitoring program in urban Los Angeles “A Day in the Life”

The Community Engagement Program on Health and the Environment team of Wendy Gutschow and Jill Johnston, along with partners Zully Juarez (prospective UCLA MURP graduate in 2020), Sandy Navarro (LA Grit Media), Ashley Hernandez (Communities for a Better Environment) have published an article in IJERPH about the program they implemented that incorporated air monitoring and storytelling with youth in environmental justice organizations around the Los Angeles area.

A Day in the Life participants at Communities for a Better Environment learn about air monitoring using AirBeams.
A Day in the Life participants at South Central Youth Leadership Coalition monitor the air front of the AllenCo oil drilling site in South Los Angeles.

From the article:

Air pollution in Southern California does not impact all communities equally; communities of color are disproportionately burdened by poor air quality and more likely to live near industrial facilities and freeways. Government regulatory monitors do not have the spatial resolution to provide air quality information at the neighborhood or personal scale. We describe the A Day in the Life program, an approach to participatory air monitoring that engages youth in collecting data that they can then analyze and use to take action. Academics partnered with Los Angeles-based youth environmental justice organizations to combine personal air monitoring, participatory science, and digital storytelling to build capacity to address local air quality issues. Eighteen youth participants from four different neighborhoods wore portable personal PM2.5 (fine particles <2.5 µm in diameter) monitors for a day in each of their respective communities, documenting and mapping their exposure to PM2.5 during their daily routine. Air monitoring was coupled with photography and videos to document what they experienced over the course of their day. The PM2.5 exposure during the day for participants averaged 10.7 µg/m3, although the range stretched from <1 to 180 µg/m3. One-third of all measurements were taken <300 m from a freeway. Overall, we demonstrate a method to increase local youth-centered understanding of personal exposures, pollution sources, and vulnerability to air quality.

“I enjoyed doing this project because it was a lot of new information for me that directly impacts me as a community member, as well as learning about the way particulate matter affects our daily lives. With all of this new information, I want to educate my community on how harmful these particulates are, and how change should begin with personal choices people make throughout their day.”—CBE Youth, Huntington Park, CA.

To read more of how this program was implemented and the work that the youth, community organizers and staff put into making this happen, click through to read and download the full article here. Read more about the program on the Day in the Life program page here.  

Participants in the Day in the Life program since its inception in 2017 include:

LA Grit Media, South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Communities for a Better Environment, Promoting Youth Advocacy, and Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, and Pacoima Beautiful.

The article is open access, available free of change to anyone who would like to download it.

Jill E. Johnston, Zully Juarez, Sandy Navarro, Ashley Hernandez, and Wendy Gutschow. (2020) “Youth Engaged Participatory Air Monitoring: A ‘Day in the Life’ in Urban Environmental Justice Communities.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17(1), 93; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17010093

This work was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (5P30ES007048 and P01ES022845) and the Environmental Protection Agency (83544101).

New StoryMap: Urban Oil and Gas Production in Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County, California is the largest urban oil field in the country and home to thousands of active oil wells in very close proximity to homes, schools and parks.  Using state data, this new tools allows you to assess proximity of active or idle wells to your location and see how much oil or gas is produced nearby.  Overall, we find that 75% of active wells are within 2500 feet of residential buildings. 

The full StoryMap can be viewed here. A slideshow version of the StoryMap can be viewed below.

EDITORIAL: New research findings show that children are exposed to lead in the womb


My team compared the levels of lead in teeth to lead levels in the soil. We discovered a significant trend. The more lead in the soil in residential neighborhoods, the higher the levels in the teeth – both prenatally and during the first year of life.
We continue to collaborate with the community to work toward prevention of lead exposure and cleanup of the contaminated soil.

Jill Johnston

The following editorial by the Truth Fairy Project’s lead researcher appears in The Conversation in full.

The environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan, in which drinking water contaminated with lead raised fears of potential health effects for exposed children, revealed the failure of a regulatory system to protect residents from lead exposure.

Until 2015 the Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter, in southeast Los Angeles County, California, recycled approximately 11 million lead acid batteries per year while operating on temporary state permits. This violated multiple federal environmental regulations and exposed over 100,000 residents to lead and other toxic metals. The result was large-scale environmental disaster with lead contamination of the air and soil in largely Latino communities.

As an environmental scientist and epidemiologist, I sought to understand lead pollution in children growing up in this area. For my research I collaborated with local community organizations and relied on an archive of biological samples that families often save: baby teeth.

Read the full story on The Conversation’s website here.

The research study associated with this editorial can be found here.

A statement regarding this research project and the ongoing work to assure the communities around the lead smelter in Los Angeles are cleaned up can be found on the website of community partner: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers summarizing the research study results from the Truth Fairy Project

NEW RESEARCH: Lead contamination found in baby teeth of children living near battery smelter

By LEIGH HOPPER, USC

Blood tests for lead only reflect recent exposure, but past exposures detected in teeth may be important indicator of harm

PRESS COVERAGE: KPCC, NBC Los Angeles, CBS Los Angeles, ABC Los Angeles, KTLA, Daily News, Science Daily, KCET, Telemundo, Business Insider, KQED

Airborne lead from recycled car batteries at the Exide plant in Vernon ended up in the baby teeth of children living nearby, a USC study shows.

“We found the higher the level of lead in the soil, the higher the amount of lead in baby teeth,” said first author Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There’s no safe level of lead; it’s a potent neurotoxin. Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact of industrial contamination on children.”

The Exide plant, located just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, recycled 11 million auto batteries per year and released 3,500 tons of lead until it closed in March 2015 as part of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations.

As many as 250,000 residents, mostly working-class Latinos, face a chronic health hazard from exposure to airborne lead and arsenic that subsequently settles into the soil, according to a 2013 health risk assessment by the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

For USC’s “Truth Fairy” study, published in the XX edition of Environmental Science & Technology, researchers collected 50 baby teeth from 43 children in five communities: Boyle Heights, Maywood, East L.A., Commerce and Huntington Park. They recruited families through churches, schools and door-to-door visits. A local organization, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, coined the name, “Truth Fairy.”

Using laser ablation and an analytical technique for molecular-level information, the researchers were able to look at the teeth layer by layer and assign time points for lead contamination, such as the second trimester of pregnancy, when teeth are starting to form in the mother’s womb.

During second trimester, teeth start to form in the mother’s womb. During the third trimester the baby is growing rapidly and incorporates nutrients and toxins to which the mother is exposed. After a child is born, they can be exposed to toxic metals in their environment. Infants are at higher risk because they crawl and put their hands and toys in their mouths.  Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers
Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH: Lead contamination found in baby teeth of children living near battery smelter”

“A Day in the Life” program starts its second cohort with youth members of Pacoima Beautiful

On April 25, USC Community Engagement staff along with community partner Sandy Navarro from LA Grit Media began A Day in the Life program with youth from Pacoima Beautiful. The training kicked off the program during which youth from Pacoima will engage in community based air monitoring and storytelling through digital media. For more information on A Day in the Life click here.

Air pollution and air monitoring training during the Day in the Life workshop with youth members of Pacoima Beautiful.
Sandy Navarro of LA Grit Media presents her Storytelling for Social Change workshop during the training at Pacoima Beautiful.