What Is Methane?
Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide. Though it breaks down more quickly, methane traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide, making it a major contributor to climate change. In fact, according to the UN Environment Programme, methane has accounted for roughly 30% of climate change since pre-industrial times. Quickly and dramatically reducing methane pollution is an essential step to preventing the worst climate impacts.
How Does It Harm Health?
As you may already know, climate change has long been called a health emergency, which is why decreasing any gas that contributes to it, such as methane, is a step in the right direction. Climate change is responsible for driving extreme heat and extreme weather events like flooding, which, besides causing physical damage and injury, can also lead to stress and illness. Warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns are increasing the size and severity of wildfires, which in turn produce even more dangerous smoke that can spread for hundreds of miles. Warmer temperatures are also worsening ground-level ozone pollution, also known as smog. No matter where you live, there is no doubt that everyone’s health is at risk from the impacts of climate change.
Where Does it Come From?
Methane gets into the atmosphere in a number of ways, including from landfills, agricultural activities, coal mining, stationary and mobile combustion, wastewater treatment and certain industrial processes. But one of the main sources of methane gas pollution is from the production of oil and gas, according to EPA.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, like the kind your home’s heating or stove may use. Natural gas is also burned in many power plants to produce electricity. When natural gas or crude oil is extracted and transported from oil and gas wells, some of the methane leaks out. In fact, one study found that about 13 million metric tons of methane leak into the atmosphere before it is even used. That is enough wasted gas to fuel 10 million homes for a year! And as methane is leaked, so are other pollutants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs form ozone and can cause cancer, affect the nervous system or cause birth defects.
Who is Most at Risk?
Everyone’s health is at risk from breathing in VOCs – including healthy adults. Though VOCs and other air pollutants can travel far away from their source, people who live near oil and gas wells are especially vulnerable.
For example, one of many areas harmed by oil and gas pollution is Arlington, Texas. More than half of all public schools and licensed daycares in Arlington are within a half-mile of a natural gas well, eight of which are within 600 feet of a gas well. The children attending these schools and daycares are exposed to toxic pollution from these wells which puts them at a higher risk of asthma attacks, cancer and more. In addition, mothers exposed to this pollution have a higher risk that their babies will be born with birth defects.
We spoke with one of our volunteers, Anabelle Thompson – a nurse of 20 years and former president of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses – about why she cares about reducing methane pollution from oil and gas wells. “I became a nurse to make an impact, and I have devoted my life to protecting the health of Hispanic and other underserved communities most at risk of climate change impacts and pollution from oil and gas wells,” said Thompson.
“As a society we have a moral obligation to ensure ethnic and vulnerable communities are informed and aware of the threat methane and we call for action that protects these communities’ health,” Anabelle said.
What We Are Doing
In November 2021, the EPA proposed new rules for methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. These represent a significant step toward mitigating harmful pollution, including methane and other hazardous air pollutants, from fossil fuel production. Stronger limits on methane pollution will have immediate benefits. Not only will they meaningfully curb greenhouse gases and help combat climate change, but they will also improve our health by reducing VOCs.
Unfortunately, these new rules don’t go far enough. So, last month, health and medical professionals across the country as well as national health organizations came together to express strong support for reducing methane pollution and other harmful pollution from the oil and gas sector. In fact, health experts have advocated for stricter limits beyond what EPA’s proposal currently includes in order to adequately protect the health of communities close to oil and gas operations and prevent the worst impacts of climate change.
To learn more about policies to clean up air pollution – including methane pollution – and fight climate change, visit lung.org/healthyair. And if you, like Anabelle, want to raise your voice in support of cleaning up methane, please take a moment to tell us why this issue is important to you.
Blog last updated: August 21, 2023