GN’s Dr. Brita Lundberg Gives State House Testimony on Health Concerns Around Gas Leaks

At a hearing on October 26, Dr. Brita E. Lundberg provided compelling testimony in support of three bills pertaining to gas leaks and pipelines legislation at the Department of Public Utilities and the State Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committees:

1. House Bill H. 3391, an act relative to the Energy Facilities Siting Board; 2. H.2698 An act clarifying authority and responsibilities of the department of public utilities; and 3. An act protecting ratepayers from gas pipeline expansion costs, that would further codify the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court and prohibit utilities from making energy customers pay the costs of new gas pipeline expansion.

Dr. Brita Lundberg, is an infectious diseases physician, board member of Green Newton; delegate and member of the Occupational and Environmental Health Committee at the Massachusetts Medical Society; and member of Mass Health Professionals for Clean Energy, a grassroots organization of physicians, nurses and social workers who are working to improve the health of Massachusetts residents by raising awareness of the public health concerns around natural gas infrastructure and advocating for efforts to transition to clean energy sources.

Below is the transcript of Dr. Lundberg’s testimony:

Testimony – Massachusetts Bill H.3391
Brita E. Lundberg, M.D. for Mass Health Care Professionals for Clean Energy
October 26, 2017

Thank you to Chairman Golden and Chairman Barret and the members of the Committee for hearing this testimony in support of the three pieces of legislation before you today: 1. House Bill H. 3391, an act relative to the Energy Facilities Siting Board; 2. H.2698 An act clarifying authority and responsibilities of the department of public utilities; and 3. An act protecting ratepayers from gas pipeline expansion costs, that would further codify the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court and prohibit utilities from making energy customers pay the costs of new gas pipeline expansion.

Let me introduce myself: Dr. Brita Lundberg, infectious diseases physician, board member of Green Newton; delegate and member of the Occupational and Environmental Health Committee at the Massachusetts Medical Society; and member of Mass Health Professionals for Clean Energy, a grassroots organization of physicians, nurses and social workers who are working to improve the health of Massachusetts residents by raising awareness of the public health concerns around natural gas infrastructure and advocating for efforts to transition to clean energy sources.

I would like to emphasize the three reasons your committee should work towards passage of these bills.

1. Public health argument: siting bill

Natural gas infrastructure is a public health concern1. The gas emitted at compressor stations or leaked in our streets is a complex mixture of methane, hexane (a neurotoxin) and benzene, which causes bone marrow suppression, aplastic anemia, leukemia and neurologic effects like headache. Also, because approximately 60% of natural gas in Massachusetts is obtained from hydraulic fracturing,[7] it contains additional substances that are harmful to human health. While a lot of people know that gas extraction via the hydraulic fracturing or fracking process causes health problems where the drilling is done, most are not aware of the health risks can potentially occur all along the entire pipeline infrastructure, because those substances are entrained into the gas and can be emitted thousands of miles away. [1]

The vast expansion of pipeline infrastructure in our state brings these same health hazards close to home. Because you don’t have to live near a compressor station to be exposed to gas extracted with these novel hydraulic fracturing techniques: in Massachusetts, there are 16,000 gas leaks, at a prodigious cost: the estimated annual revenue loss is $90 million dollars in Boston alone.[8] And that is only the direct economic cost. There is also a health cost.

The health effects of these substances are several. For in addition to benzene, this gas contains formaldehyde, also known to cause cancer; it contains particulate matter, lead and mercury, which can cause lung diseases, heart attack, stroke and miscarriage and premature birth. The leaking of these compounds into the air (or intentional release, at compressor stations) is also associated with the production of ground level ozone, a pollutant that can reduce lung function and worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

The health impacts of these hazardous air pollutants and carcinogens have a human and financial cost: a direct and foreseeable cost that has been detailed in more than 900 peer-reviewed scientific publications on the health impacts of natural gas infrastructure. These studies demonstrate that there are serious health concerns around natural gas infrastructure. Several studies suggest that the burden of health consequences seem to be borne disproportionately by young children. Let me quote from one:

“Among the youngest respondents (1.5-16 years of age), those within 1500 feet [of a compressor station] experienced higher rates of throat irritation (57% vs. 69%) and severe headaches (52% vs. 69%). It is also notable that the youngest group had the highest occurrence of frequent nosebleeds (perhaps reflective of the more sensitive mucosal membranes in the young), as well as experiencing conditions not typically associated with children, such as severe headaches, joint and lumbar pain, and forgetfulness.”[6]

More recent studies, two of them just in the last year, are concerning:

  • Cancer –a recent 2017 report links ALL, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, to living near oil and gas development and [9].
  • Increased risk of miscarriage and premature birth and congenital heart defects associated with living close to natural gas infrastructure and development.[10, 11]

Because of these health concerns, the American Medical Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the Massachusetts Nurses Association and have passed resolutions supporting legislation to require comprehensive health impact assessments prior to the construction of natural gas infrastructure; the Mass Medical Society further demanded that the health impacts of existing natural gas infrastructure be studied; they were specifically interested in the health effects of gas leaks, which affects all of our communities.

Comprehensive health impact assessments can look in a systematic way, using the best available theory and evidence to make prospective judgments regarding the health impacts of policy decisions. They are useful because they identify harms and benefits before decisions are made; they look at both the short and long term effects of projects, especially on vulnerable populations.

The importance of taking these factors into account by our siting boards is critical to point out because here in Massachusetts, two massive LNG terminals (each the size of Gillette stadium) are planned on a wetlands in Acushnet, next to two elementary schools and a middle school; there is a playground next to the proposed compressor station site in Weymouth; and here in Boston, our new metering and regulating station lies close to several public elementary and middle schools as well as the Roxbury Latin School and the Arnold Arboretum.

2. Greenhouse gas/climate change effects

In addition to the health effects of natural gas exposure, methane is a potent heat- trapping gas that makes a significant contribution to climate change. Climate change may damage human health and well-being in many documented ways, through extreme weather events, food and water insecurity, and the spread of water-borne and insect-borne diseases. The elderly, the sick and the disadvantaged are at higher risk of the effects of climate change.

The greenhouse gas impact of natural gas has been estimated to be comparable, if not worse, than that of coal, when all of the methane that is emitted due to gas leaks and intentional gas releases across the entire process chain are added up. [12]

3. A final reason to support these bills is the health benefit of cutting those greenhouse gas emissions: taxpayers should not have to pay for something that may literally make them sick.

When greenhouse gas emissions from any source—gas leaks, compressor stations, power plants and motor vehicles– are reduced or avoided, we experience immediate health benefits right here in Massachusetts, because of lower levels of particles in the air that originate from fossil fuel combustion.[14] In studies of generally healthy adult participants of the Framingham Heart Study living near Boston, it was found that when particulate matter levels are higher, even within the current daily standard, adult lung function is worse. These health effects are avoidable, and would be directly addressed by these bills.

And while I am very concerned about how air pollution affects adults, especially those who are more susceptible, I am even more concerned about how air pollution affects children, whose lungs are still developing until they are teenagers.[13] Project Viva, a study of about 2,000 children born in the Boston area, has shown that a staggering 20% will develop asthma. Kids who are more exposed to pollution have lower lung function. They are at higher risk of having a serious respiratory infection requiring medical attention by age 3. And perhaps most concerning of all, exposure to pollution is linked to a higher risk of developing asthma during childhood, which is a serious and costly chronic disease that can persist throughout life.

It is also important to note that this gas infrastructure undermine efforts and funding in our state to address public health issues such as asthma and heart disease, priorities set forth by State Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel.

We health care providers consider advocating for cleaner air and a response to climate change to be part of our professional responsibility as healthcare providers.

We trust that the committee will bear these public health concerns economic and health costs and climate change arguments in mind as they seriously consider the merits of this body of legislation.

 

Respectfully,
Brita Lundberg, MD
Regina LaRoque, MD
Susan Racine, MD

 

Notes:

1 “Too Dirty, Too Dangerous: Why Health Professionals Reject Natural Gas: A Report.” Physicians for Social Responsibility, February 2017.

2 American Medical Association (2015). H-135.930 Protecting public health from natural gas infrastructure, Resolution 519, A-15.
3 Massachusetts Medical Society (2017). Protecting public health from natural gas infrastructure in Massachusetts, Resolution A-17 A-105.
4 Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health (2017). Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming our Health.
5 American Medical Association (2015). H-135.930 Protecting public health from natural gas infrastructure, Resolution 519, A-15.
[6] Source: Steinzor et al. NEW SOLUTIONS, Vol. 23(1) 55-83, 2013. http://new.sagepub.com/content/23/1/55.long
[7]https://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/NG_PROD_SUM_DC_NUS_MMCF_M.htm
[8] Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Infrastructure and Use in the Urban Region of Boston, Massachusetts; PNAS, 2015

[9] McKenzie, LM et al (2017): Childhood hematologic cancer and residential proximity to oil and gas development PLOS1
[10] McKenzie, LM et al (2014) Birth outcomes and maternal residential proximity to natural gas development in rural Colorado Environmental Health Perspectives.
[11] Casey JA et al. Unconventioanal Natural Gas Development and Birth outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA. Epidemiology 2016.
[12] [Dr Howarth, Cornell Univ has analyzed life cycle greenhouse gas emissions for fracked gas and coal. They are comparable, if not worse for fracked gas (depending on the leak rate). Gas only looks better in terms of climate change if you look ONLY at CO2 emissions from a power plant burning gas vs goal. That is a false story sold by the many powerful natural gas industry associations. Many materials on his lab web page incling a good 2015 piece, freely available:
http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/pubs_all.php

[ 13.] Silverman RA, Ito K. Age-related association of fine particles and ozone with severe acute asthma in New York City. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(2):367-73 e5.

[14] Pope CA, 3rd, Ezzati M, Dockery DW. Fine-particulate air pollution and life expectancy in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(4):376-86.

H.3400/S.1847
An act clarifying authority and responsibilities of the department of public utilities
(Rep. Kulik/Sen. Eldridge)
Would ensure the public’s ability to intervene at the DPU and hold local distribution gas contracts to high standards regarding the capacity for which they may contract.
Bill assigned to Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

H.2698/S.1855
An act protecting ratepayers from gas pipeline expansion costs
(Rep. Godon/Sen. Jehlen)
Would further codify ruling by SJC and prohibit utilities from making energy customers pay the costs of new gas pipeline expansion.
Bill assigned to Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.