Understanding Exposures and Health Risks Associated with Unconventional Oil and Gas Development

Posted by Alison Cullen on Tuesday, March 22 2016

Alison Cullen, Professor, Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington in Seattle; and Donna Vorhees, Senior Research Associate, Health Effects Institute in Boston are seeking input and participation from Fellows who are involved in assessing and managing human health risk in the context of unconventional oil and gas development (sometimes referred to as hydraulic fracturing or fracking), or those who are involved in related decision making and policy.  Our project seeks to:

  1. identify knowledge gaps related to potential environmental health impacts from the development, operation, and closure of unconventional oil and gas facilities
  2. develop a data-driven decision analytic approach to prioritize research that fills these gaps in support of informed decision making to minimize potential human exposures and effects.

Risk and Decision Analysis Issue

Much has been written about human exposure and health risk from unconventional oil and gas development. The health research alleges some health effects, but findings are uncertain for a number of reasons, notably imprecise measures of exposure. Better data about the type of health stressors and the magnitude of potential human exposures are needed to understand potential effects on health. However, the literature highlights many possible exposures, so how do we establish which are the most likely and the most deserving of study?

The Health Effects Institute convened a special Scientific Committee to define research needs to better understand potential exposures and effects. The committee took a critical first step in defining priorities, and we propose taking the next step toward a more detailed, quantitative analytic approach for defining priorities and organizing knowledge to better support health protective decision-making.

Tapping the Switzer Network

We are specifically asking for advice and input from those in the Switzer Network who have produced or have access to air, water and waste concentration/composition data sets and risk characterizations that are relevant to management of human health risk associated with unconventional oil and gas development. We aim to develop a decision analytic framework, identify and target data gaps, and draw conclusions about minimizing human health risk based on data-driven analyses. This goal will be attainable only if we draw together a comprehensive set of high-quality data and information from diverse and credible sources. 

Anticipated Outputs

Our proposed project is a three month effort, in which we will lay focused groundwork for a longer term research program involving a wide range of stakeholders and researchers concerned with research gaps related to potential human impacts from unconventional oil and gas development. We will produce a decision analytic framework that will support research planning and prioritization during a workshop that will be convened by HEI. For this purpose we will develop a white paper (ultimately targeting peer reviewed publication) containing a data-driven, evidence based framework for organizing existing data and analysis, and for distilling specific “research ready” gaps, with the ultimate goal of attracting focused sustained research attention and effort from a broader community.

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