how Healthy is Natural Gas?

What do ferries, gas stoves and home heating systems have in common? Many of them run on natural gas. But what many people don’t know is that natural gas is a health hazard — for families in BC who live beside the LNG-fracking industry that produces it, for people who burn it in their homes, and for the climate change that is devastating our planet. As doctors and nurses who care for patients and communities across western Canada, we say: it's time we talk about the health effects of natural gas.

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What is "Natural" Gas?

Natural gas is a flammable mixture of hydrocarbon gases mostly composed of methane. However, despite being branded as "natural," natural gas is a fossil fuel like coal, oil, and gasoline. It fills the air with harmful greenhouse gases and pollutants when it burns.

Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, is natural gas that has been cooled and compressed to around negative 160 degrees Celsius for transportation. Canada's largest natural gas reserves are located in northeast British Columbia, deep underground. These reserves are fuelling an expanding LNG industry.

Why is Natural Gas Unhealthy? 

A fracking site
A fracking site in northeastern BC
Photo Credit: Don Pettit

1. In BC, Most natural Gas is Fracked Gas

To access gas deposits in BC, fossil fuel companies must use a polluting and water-intensive technique called hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," to crack the earth open.

Fracking, Explained

Fracking begins with the drilling of a long vertical or angled well that can extend several kilometres into the earth. As the well nears rock formations where the natural gas deposits are, drilling turns horizontal.
A slurry of toxic chemicals, sand and water is then pumped in under high pressure to create fractures in the surrounding rock. Some of the radioactive slurry remains underground, and some returns to the surface, where it is stored in open frack ponds that risk leakage and overflow. Gas also flows to the surface for gathering, processing, and transportation. During its lifetime, each fracking well can consume over 10,000,000 litres of clean water, the majority of which is removed permanently from the water cycle.
Image Credit: Wilderness Committee

There are more than 20,000 fracking wells scattered across northeastern BC, with more wells being drilled every day. These wells destroy forests and farmland. In fact, fracking-related access roads, well pads, water hubs, pipelines, compressor stations, gas plants, and waste disposal in BC cover five times as much land as Alberta tar sands mines.

a multi-well fracking pad
A typical multi-well fracking pad in the Montney formation.
Photo Credit: Don Pettit

2. Fracking is a Major Health Threat

The process of fracking is deeply polluting. It can poison the air, contaminate the water and soil, and imperil the lives of those living close by the well.

Findings from more than 1,700 studies, articles, and reports show that fracking activities are associated with a host of health problems including birth defects, cancer and asthma. It is no wonder that fracking is banned in several countries (including France, Germany, and the UK) and provinces (including Quebec and New Brunswick).

diagram showing the health effects of fracking
Image Credit: NextCity

Harmful gases like benzene and radon are released from the rock by fracking. Cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing are therefore some of the most common complaints from residents living near fracked wells. Similarly, the toxic brew of water and chemicals in frack fluid that returns to the surface is often stored in open pits, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air that can cause asthma, COPD, cancer, and other severe illnesses.

Each fracking well can pollute over 10 million litres of fresh water, most of which is permanently removed from the water cycle. Harmful chemicals including BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene) and heavy metals like mercury and lead have contaminated agricultural soils near fracking operations. Multiple chemicals in produced water are known to have carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting properties, and contain radioactive materials.

Fracking chemicals are harmful to pregnant women and their developing babies. Researchers have found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in surface waters near wastewater disposal sites, and evidence for increased levels of a degradation product of the carcinogen benzene in the urine of pregnant women. There is also strong evidence linking fracking to preterm labour and low-birth-weight babies.

BC's Peace region experiences roughly 1,500 small earthquakes a year, most of which are connected to fracking operations. In this part of BC, a total of 439 earthquakes up to 4.6 magnitude were associated with fracking between 2013 and 2019. Fracking can cause earthquakes in two ways:
(1) High-pressure fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing
(2) High-pressure disposal of fracking wastewater (or "produced water") into abandoned wells.

3. Natural Gas Development Hurts Real People

Photo of Dr. Ulrike Meyer
Photo Credit: Sabrina Bergeron

I have some patients whose symptoms I can’t explain. There’s one, an older farmer in his mid 70s. His farm was surrounded by a multi-well pad and open waste-water tanks. Shortly after the flares went up he developed episodes where he would suddenly pass out. We adjusted his medications, did a Holter, CT angiogram, brain scans and referred him to a specialist, but couldn’t come up with anything. When they were done with all the fracking activity and sealed the sites two years ago his symptoms disappeared. He’s had no other episodes since.

We should have a fund provided by the oil and gas industry to do toxicology studies on them. I think we should use a top-down approach: test the humans and animals, and the environment — because we breathe the air, we drink the water and are part of the web of life.

Dr. Ulrike Meyer
Family Physician
Dawson Creek, BC
1 / 6
Photo of Brian Derfler
Photo Credit: Don Pettit

We’ve really lost our quiet enjoyment and quality of life. I was driving home one day when my kids were in school and the valley was completely smogged in from one flare stack. There’s lots of flaring in the middle of the night that wakes you up, like a 747 taking off. I get sleep deprived, emotional and upset. We have idle-free zones and we recycle, but these measures seem insignificant when fracking is happening around us.

When I hear ads saying, “put in a fireplace and cook with natural gas” because it’s an affordable luxury, I don’t think they’re grasping the reality of the impacts on the environment and us.

When the oceans rise 15 feet and the storms come in things are going to escalate. What they’re doing here is affecting our health directly, but it’s going to affect your climate.

Brian Derfler
Third-generation Farmer
Farmington, BC
2 / 6
Photo of Karl Mattson
Photo Credit: Karl Mattson

We have some of the best farmland in British Columbia. With the quality of soil, our long summers and our unique growing season we can grow amazing crops here.

So for the oil and gas industry to be able to subdivide and take leases and just kind of run rickshaw over prime farmland—in this age we’re in when we’re worried about food security it’s a very serious business.  If you don’t take fracking infrastructure on your land, they’ll just hop right over to your neighbour’s. And they will reap the monetary reward while you get directional drilling under your farm sucking resources out of your land anyway.

That’s why I think it slowly divides communities—it pits neighbour against neighbour. Divide and conquer.

Karl Mattson
Fifth-generation Farmer
Rolla, BC
3 / 6
Photo of Karen Hosford and her children
Photo Supplied

We moved to Dawson Creek to be closer to nature and raise our children in a small town—we love the outdoors. Now we live within 3 km of 96 sour gas wells, and there’s an open fracking wastewater pit, flare stacks and water towers above our place. We went from a country lifestyle to semis blowing stop signs and big drill rigs almost running you over.

There are tons of people with cancer. A seven-year-old girl who’s a family friend was diagnosed with a brain tumour last week.

I’ve worked from Alaska to BC in mining and my mind is blown by this industry. If I did these things in my job I would be fired on the spot. We had a little piece of Heaven, and now it’s all gas and flare stacks.

Karen Hosford
Environmental Scientist
Dawson Creek, BC
4 / 6
Photo of Head Chief Smogelgem
Photo Credit: Mark West Photography

I worked at the Unist’ot’en Camp—along the path of the proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline—for eight years. That place is a beacon of hope for people who are trying to stand up for the environment, but it’s also a beacon of hope for people who want to get healthy.

We want to build a Climate Change Research Center on Likhts’amisyu territory. But we can’t let colonization lead us through that process. In order for us to make any difference in the climate change, we need to make sure that we have Indigenous people and Indigenous decision-makers taking that lead.

We’re not going anywhere. We’ve survived so many things, and we’re going to survive this as well. And we’re going to win.

Head Chief Smogelgem (right)
Sun House, Fireweed Clan
Wet’suwet’en Nation, BC
5 / 6
Photo of Linda Ewert
Photo Credit: Karl Mattson

When fracking showed up it had quite an impact on our lives. With all the traffic, all the dust, the danger on the road—it was no longer safe to drive four horses there. We have a lovely spring that was used for all of our drinking water. The flow was exactly the same during the coldest, the hottest, the driest weather. But all of a sudden one day when they were fracking near us there were only a few drips of water coming out of it.

It’s heartbreaking—we always imagined passing our farm down to our kids. Our philosophy of being here is to put back in as much as we can to improve the soil and the community. But the oil and gas industry’s approach is the diametric opposite.

Linda Ewert
Organic Farmer
Pouce Coupe, BC
6 / 6

4. Cooking With Natural Gas Pollutes Indoor Air

Natural-gas kitchen appliances pollute your home with nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air contaminant. If you cook with gas and have a child with asthma, your stovetop could be exacerbating their attacks.

In 2015, following an extensive review of the science, Health Canada issued new indoor NO2 safe exposure limits. These limits remain among the strictest in the world. Unfortunately, Health Canada says that most existing Canadian gas ranges do not meet its long-term NO2 exposure standard.

Natural gas furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, and cooking appliances also generate a staggering amount of British Columbia's climate pollution. Read more about this problem and its solutions at switchitupbc.ca.

5. Natural Gas is A Climate Disaster

Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas with 86 times the heating impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year span—in other words, a super pollutant that has enormous short-term impacts on our climate.

While gas itself is less carbon intensive than coal when burned, methane leaks at every stage of its extraction and processing. If enough methane leaks during its production, its greenhouse gas advantages are wiped out. Recent studies suggest that methane leakage is double what the government previously estimated, bad enough to make natural gas the climate-heating equivalent of coal—and definitely not a transition fuel. In fact, atmospheric methane levels are higher than they have been in 800,000 years. This is why scientists say controlling methane is one of our best bets for reducing global heating now.

Despite a commitment to a 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 and a promise to achieve net-zero by 2050, between 2020–21 BC’s government spent $1.3 billion on fossil fuel subsidies — 8.3 percent more than the previous year. Rather than decrease over time, these subsidies are estimated to surpass $1.8 billion in 2023-24—more than triple what the previous government spent in 2016-17. It is therefore no surprise that BC’s carbon emissions continue to rise each year.

These ongoing handouts will make it almost impossible for BC to hit its legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2050.

Invest in a Healthy future

To avoid runaway climate heating, with more droughts, wildfires, floods and harms to human health, fracking and LNG must be scaled back, starting now. We need to have a frank, province-wide conversation about our shared future. Fortunately, some businesses and communities in the north are already well on their way to building a sustainable and healthy economy. We need to bring together all stakeholders — government, Indigenous Nations, health organizations, citizen groups, scientists and business — to work out how we all will thrive in a future without fracking or LNG.

Bear Mountain Wind Turbine
Bear Mountain wind farm in northeastern BC.
Photo Credit: Don Pettit

Our Asks

As doctors and nurses working in British Columbia, we ask that the following changes be implemented to guarantee a healthy and sustainable future for our province.

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A Moratorium on Fracking

Because natural gas extraction harms the health of people living near fracking wells and intensifies the climate crisis, the BC government should stop all new fracking development.

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Zero Emissions Buildings

Natural gas hook-ups should be banned in all new buildings by 2023, with buildings in the north given until 2025 to comply. We must invest in retraining programs for workers to build affordable zero emissions buildings, and retrofit all existing buildings for zero emissions.

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a just transition

Support must be provided to workers and Indigenous communities impacted by LNG production to transition to a clean-energy economy, including financial support for retraining, and a guarantee of good, zero emissions jobs.

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End fossil fuel subsidies

The provincial governments must end all fossil fuel subsidies as defined by the World Trade Organization, including direct spending, tax breaks, transfer of risk, and public finance.

We Need Your Help

Implementing these changes won't be easy. We are up against a massive fossil fuel industry that spends millions each year lobbying our provincial and federal governments. But together we can make a difference in fighting fracking and climate change. Sign our letter to the BC government below and stay updated on our campaign and ways to help out.

Click Here to Sign Our Letter