BMP of Oil and Gas Development

Public Health

Recent technological advances in directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing have increased oil and gas operations in populated areas. As of 2013, 15 million people in the United States live within a mile of a well drilled since the year 2000 (Russell Gold “Energy Boom Puts Wells in America’s Backyards”, The Wall Street Journal 2013). As with any industrial activity, upstream oil and gas operations have many hazards, which may negatively impact the health of industry workers and nearby communities.

The Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado and the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment developed this public health page with funds from the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America’s (RPSEA) Environmental Friendly Drilling (EFD) Program. This page highlights potential public health effects of upstream oil and gas development. It also summarizes best management practices (BMPs) and innovative technologies that have the potential to minimize negative health effects and maximize societal benefits associated with oil and natural gas development. Field testing and consistent monitoring of BMPs and innovative technologies may be necessary to ensure that they are operating as intended and truly minimizing hazards. This point is illustrated by the recent discovery of unintended volatile organic compound emissions from tanks equipped with vapor control systems ( Currently, there are more than 250 BMPs related to pubic health in our searchable database. For information on the laws intended to protect public health, please see the Law and Policy pages and the LawAtlas comparative law database..

Public Health Basics

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes public health as all organized measures to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life among the population as a whole. Public health activities aim to provide conditions in which people can be healthy. These activities focus on entire populations, not on individual patients or diseases. Two main functions of public health are especially relevant when considering the health effects that may be associated with oil and gas development:

  • The assessment and monitoring of the health problems in communities and at risk populations.
  • The formulation of public policies designed to solve identified local and national health problems and to address priorities.

Public health professionals specializing in environmental health and occupational health study the health effects of upstream oil and gas development on workers and communities.

Environmental health professionals monitor and assess communities for environmental hazards, exposures, and health effects that may include indicators of physical, mental, and social health. Similarly, occupational health professionals monitor and assess working populations for hazards, exposures and indicators of health in the work place. This information can then be used to inform public policies aimed at minimizing the potential health risks for workers and communities.


As shown in Figure 1, whether or not an environmental stressor poses a risk to public health depends on the hazard(s), the exposure, and the vulnerability of the affected population(s). A hazard is anything in an environment with the potential to harm human health, and an exposure is the contact between the hazard and workers or nearby community populations. In this context vulnerability is susceptibility in worker or community populations due to work practices, age, genetics or other factors.

Figure 2:

Public health is an observational science, and environmental and occupational health professionals use a variety of approaches to determine if environmental stressors are associated with preventable health effects (Figure 2). Predictive study designs estimate future potential effects, while epidemiological studies look at specific populations though either descriptive or analytic designs. For example, public health scientists conduct health impact assessments (HIAs) risk assessments to identify hazards and potential exposures that can affect a population’s health. Descriptive epidemiological studies, such as case series and ecological studies, describe and document specific health conditions that have been observed in specific populations where there is the potential for exposure to hazards. These predictive and descriptive epidemiological studies are very useful for determining the weight of evidence that a potential environmental hazard will likely cause health effects in workers or communities and to help design larger, more rigorous studies.

They cannot, however, demonstrate causal links in most cases: they can only show that an exposure preceded a health outcome. Predictive and descriptive studies can provide part of the weight of evidence that a causal link between environmental hazards and a health outcome may exist. The strongest scientific evidence for causality comes from analytic case-control or cohort studies, which are designed to show whether or not individuals exposed to an environmental hazard are more likely to have a health effect than individuals who were not exposed to the environmental hazard. These sorts of studies often take years to develop and perform, so developing a strong evidence base for a link between an exposure and disease in humans is a slow process

Potential Public Health Hazards Associated With Upstream Oil and Gas Development

Upstream oil and gas development is the process of oil and gas exploration and production, which includes site selection, drilling, hydraulic fracturing and flowback. Flowback involves the flow of oil, gas, hydraulic fracturing fluids, and formation waters from the shale formation to the surface. Midstream activities include transport often via pipelines but also via rail, barge, oil tankers and trucks; downstream activities include processing of gas, or refining of oil and marketing and distribution to end users. Figure 3 presents a systems view of upstream oil and gas operations. Choose a specific operation to see specific activities associated with the operation.

Figure 3: Systems View of Upstream Activities

Well Development Exploration Site Preparation Drilling Hydraulic Fracturing Flowback Production Processing Well Maintenance Pigging Well Workovers Liquid Unloadings Distribution Well Abandonment

As shown in Table 1, some of the potential hazards associated with upstream oil and gas development are present at all the steps shown in the systems figure, some are largely associated with the well development steps, and a few are specific to a particular step. Large trucks are used in all steps to transport supplies, equipment, chemicals, water, and exploration and production (E&P) waste to and from the sites. Hazards associated with large trucks include diesel emissions, traffic accidents, spills, noise, and vibrations. Various types of heavy equipment, such as earth moving machinery, drill rigs, and workover rigs are used throughout the system. Hazards associated with heavy equipment include diesel emissions, worker accidents, noise, vibrations, and light. The flaring of gas at any step adds to the potential noise hazard and adds a hazard for exposure to nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. Venting during well unloadings or other maintenance may add hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene, toluene, and hexane, to nearby surroundings and the local air shed. Loss of well control, blow-outs, and hydrogen sulfide releases are hazards associated with drilling, hydraulic fracturing, flowback, and well workovers. In addition to the public health hazards associated with each step above, the injection of exploration and/or production wastes into deep wells has been associated with earthquakes; and the discharge of exploration and production wastes to surface water may compromise water quality. To see some of the potential health risks associated with some of the hazards in the table below, click on the hazard.

Table 1: Hazards Associated With Upstream Activities

Adapted from Adgate 2014

Source Upstream Activity Potential Chemical Hazards Physical Hazards Safety Hazards
Air Ground Water Surface water, soil/
Large Trucks All diesel exhaust1 noise, vibration spills and accidents
Heavy Equipment exploration, site preparation, drilling, well workovers, and well abandonment diesel exhaust1 noise, vibration, light spills and accidents
Dust site preparation, well abandonment particulate matter
Drilling Mud drilling volatile chemicals in drilling muds2 chemicals in drilling muds2 chemicals in drilling muds2 Spills
Fracturing fluid hydraulic fracturing silica, volatile chemicals in fracturing fluids3, 6 chemicals in fracturing fluids3 chemicals in fracturing fluids3 Spills
Diesel powered generators drilling, hydraulic fracturing diesel exhaust1 noise
Produced water drilling, flowback petroleum hydrocarbons4, 6 petroleum hydrocarbons4, inorganic chemicals5 petroleum hydrocarbons4, inorganic chemicals5 Spills
Drill cuttings drilling particulate matter
Flowback water flowback volatile chemicals in drilling muds2 and fracturing fluids3, petroleum hydrocarbons4, 6 chemicals in drilling muds2 and fracturing fluids3, petroleum hydrocarbons4, inorganic chemicals5 chemicals in drilling muds2 and fracturing fluids3, petroleum hydrocarbons4, inorganic chemicals5 Spills
Deep Injection Flowback seismic activity
Gas Venting drilling, flowback, processing, pigging, well workovers, liquid unloadings methane7, hydrogen sulfide, petroleum hydrocarbons4, 6 Accidents
Gas Flaring drilling, flowback, processing, well workovers nitrogen oxides6, carbon dioxide7 noise, light
Pipelines production methane7, petroleum hydrocarbons4, 6 Accidents
Dehydrators, Separators, and Condensate Tanks Processing methane7, petroleum hydrocarbons4, 6 noise

1Diesel emissions include particulate matter, nitrogen oxides6, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene, 1,3-butadiene, aldehydes6 such as formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxides.

2Drilling mud chemicals may include boric acid, borate salts, rubber-based oil, barium compounds, and synthetic oil.

3Fracturing fluid chemicals may include methanol, glutaraldehyde, N,N-Dimethylformamide, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (also known as 2-B,E or 2-butoxyethanol), petroleum distillates, ethylene glycol, isopropanol (also known as rubbing alcohol), stoddard solvent (also known as mineral spirits, petroleum solvent, spotting naphtha), acetic acid, potassium chloride, ammonium persulfate, hydrochloric acid, and hydroxyethyl cellulose.

4Petroleum hydrocarbons may include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene (these 4 chemicals are sometimes referred to as BTEX), trimethylbenzenes, propane, n-butane, n-pentane, n-hexane, n-heptane, n-nonane, and n-octane.

5Inorganic chemicals may include barium, strontium, bromine, heavy metals, salts and NORM (naturally occurring radioactive materials: radium, radon, uranium, thorium, and potassium).

6Volatile organic chemicals are chemicals containing carbon and hydrogen atoms that easily vaporize. They include petroleum hydrocarbons and aldehydes which both can react with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight to form ground level ozone.

7Methane and carbon dioxide are not toxic at the levels occurring with well development and production. They are greenhouse gases and may affect public health through their contributions to global climate change.


For an environmental hazard to pose a risk to public health a vulnerable human population must come into contact, i.e., be exposed to, the hazard. Worker populations may have direct contact with chemical, physical, and biological hazards. Chemical hazards originating from oil and gas operations can also be transported offsite to nearby communities in air and possibly water. Communities can also be exposed to physical hazards associated with oil and gas operations due to proximity (e.g., noise, light, or vibration) or through use of shared infrastructure (e.g., roads). Communities also can also be exposed to a range of psychosocial stressors that result from competition for resources (e.g., water and housing) and changes in social structure (e.g., jobs and influx of workers).


*Image from Adgate 2014

As illustrated in Figure 4, the health risks to a specific community or subpopulation within a community (e.g., children, the elderly) will depend on proximity to a particular oil and gas operation as well as frequency and duration of exposure. Oil and gas workers likely are at the highest risk for short-term (acute), as well as some longer term (chronic), health effects due to the numerous hazards and higher occupational exposures they experience. The use of personal protective equipment, safety training, and other procedures are designed to protect workers from hazards and exposures present on oil and gas sites. While chemical concentrations typically decline with distance from oil and gas development sites, residents living near drill sites and related infrastructure may be at increased risk in some cases because they may be exposed for a longer durations than worker populations that work onsite but reside elsewhere.

Communities near the oil and gas development sites may be at higher risk for accidents or malfunctions because of their proximity; however, the risk typically declines with distance from a hazard. Similarly, risks from chemical emissions, noise levels, and light pollution typically decline with increasing distance. The distance at which chemical exposures, noise, light and vibration become a concern to health varies by the hazard and are not known in all cases. While noise, light, and vibrations typically decline with distance from the source, chemical and physical concentrations vary by the rate or intensity of release into the environment. For example, chemical concentrations at worksites or in communities are affected by wind speed and direction, human activities that affect exposure, such as breathing rates and the number of hours spent at work or home. More broadly, populations living in regions with oil and natural gas development may experience degraded air (e.g., increased ozone levels) or water quality (e.g., due to spills or leaks) or quantity (e.g., due to localized use of a locally scarce resource).

Public Health Risks That May Be Associated With Oil and Gas Development

As of 2014, most studies addressing the public health implications of oil and gas development have been either predictive and/or descriptive hypothesis generating. The few analytic studies are preliminary and do not provide a enough evidence to conclusively determine if oil and gas operations cause health effects in nearby populations. Existing studies have provided evidence that hazards are inherently present in and around oil and gas operations and that populations are frequently exposed to these hazards. People living near oil and gas operations have reported that oil and gas operations affect their health and quality of life, particularly through traffic accidents, air and water pollution, and social disruption expressed as psychosocial stress.

For more information, see the following reviews which summarize the current state of the science on the potential public health effects associated with oil and gas development:

Adgate, J.L., Goldstein, B. D., and McKenzie, L.M. “Potential Public Health Hazards, Exposures, and Health Effects from Unconventional Natural Gas Development”. Environmental Science and Technology, Volume 48 (15): 8307-8320, 2014.

Penning, T.M., Breysse, P.N., Gray, K., Howarth, M., Beizhan, Y. “Environmental Health Research Recommendations from the Inter-Environmental Health Sciences Core Center Working Group on Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling Operations”. Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 122 (11):1155-1159, 2014.

Shonkoff, S.B., Hayes, J., Finkel, M.L. “Environmental Public Health Dimensions of Shale and Tight Gas Development”. Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 122 (8): 787-795 2014.

Werner, A.K., Vink, S., Watt, K., Jagals, P. “Environmental Health Impacts of Unconventional Natural Gas Development: A review of the current strength of evidence”. Science of the Total Environment, Volume 505 (2-15): 1127-1141, 2014.

Best Management Practices

OSHA Well Drilling and Servicing eTool Identify common hazards and possible solutions to incidents that could lead to injuries or fatalities.

Best management practices (BMPs) aimed at promoting safety and lessening the environmental impact of oil and gas operations may also reduce, and perhaps eliminate, some of the public health effects of oil and gas development. Field testing and consistent monitoring of BMPs and innovative technologies may be necessary to ensure that they are operating as intended and truly minimizing hazards. This point is illustrated by the recent discovery of unintended volatile organic compound emissions from tanks equipped with vapor control systems ( The public health-related BMPs in our searchable database range from voluntary industry practices to laws and regulations and are categorized according to several aspects of public health that may be affected by oil and natural gas development.

  1. Safety
  2. Public Safety - The prevention of and protection from events that could endanger the safety of the general public resulting in injury, harm, or damage.

    Worker Safety – The protection of worker safety, health, and welfare though prevention, thereby fostering a safe and healthy work environment.

    Accident prevention - Techniques used to prevent and/or mitigate an unplanned event or circumstance.

    Worker training – To educate an employee of the new or revised techniques used to complete a job or task.

  3. Environmental Quality
  4. Water Quality – A measure of the suitability of water for a particular use based on selected physical, chemical, and biological characteristics that protect human health.

    Air Quality – A measure of the state of the air around us in regards to protecting public health, including the health of "sensitive" populations such as people with asthma, children, and older adults.

    Vector Control - A method to limit or eradicate the mammals, birds, insects or others that transmit disease pathogens.

  5. Psychosocial – refers to the close connection between psychological aspects of human experience and the wider social experience affecting human health.

    Noise - A sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.

    Truck Traffic - The aggregation of truck vehicles coming and going in a particular locality.

    Light - Excessive, misdirected, or obstructive artificial light.

  6. Sanitation - The hygienic means of promoting health through prevention of human contact with hazards of wastes as well as the treatment and proper disposal of waste.

  7. Health
  8. Worker Health - The protection and promotion of employee health.

    Community Health - The study and improvement of the health characteristics of communities focusing on geographical area.

  9. Community Infrastructure
  10. Emergency Preparedness - The discipline of dealing with and avoiding both natural and manmade disasters using mitigation practices, preparedness, response and recovery in order to lessen the impact of disasters.

    Community Resilience - A measure of the sustained ability of a community to utilize available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations.

    Sustainability - Creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony; these conditions permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.

Other Resources For Communities and Workers

  1. OSHA, Safety and Health topics:
  2. NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards:
  3. FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry:
  4. Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer:
  5. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission:
  6. Analysis of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in Drill Cuttings, Greater Wattenberg Field, Weld County Colorado:
  7. Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project:
  8. Shale Gas Development in Ohio:
  9. Chemicals Used in Hydraulic Fracturing:
  10. Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry ToxFAQs:
  11. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) eTool for oil and gas extraction workers:

RESOLVE’s Solutions Network

RESOLVE’s Solutions Network, launched in October 2010, works to mobilize leaders in business and civil society to incubate and test ideas and turn them into self-sustaining environmental, social, and health solutions. The network consulted with a multi-stakeholder working group to create the Community Health and Shale Development Guidebook. The goal is for health officials, community members and industry representatives to use this guidebook to 1) gain a basic factual understanding of the potential health issues, 2) easily access in-depth resources from a variety of perspectives, and 3) learn about some options for responding to challenges. The guidebook is organized by both project stage and the typical questions that community stakeholders might have. It also includes case examples in which companies and communities have worked together to find solutions to community concerns. This dynamic guidebook, is to be updated as new information and case studies emerge.

Page created: 2-20-2015
Last substantive additions:
Last minor updates: 11-13-15
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