A USC study links living by urban oil wells with wheezing and reduced lung function, symptoms disproportionately borne by people of color in Los Angeles County.
In some cases, the respiratory harm rivals that of daily exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke or living beside highways spewing auto exhaust, the researchers found.
The study focused on drilling sites—specifically two in South L.A. yet could have implications elsewhere in the Greater LA region. About one-third of L.A. County residents live less than one mile from an active drilling site—and some live as close as 60 feet.
“Oil and gas extraction occurs in densely populated neighborhoods next to where residents live and go to school,” said researcher Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “In this community-driven research, we found that living close to oil sites is associated with lower lung function. These results persist across ages, sex and racial/ethnic groups.”
Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the country, with thousands of active wells extracting crude and natural gas near homes, schools and parks. Some pumpjacks operate out in the open, while others are hidden inside structures that blend into the urban landscape.
Los Angeles Times investigation last year found that the city is dotted with 1,000 abandoned wells that continue to expose people to toxic gases. Even neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and beach communities still harbor oil wells.
Active and idle wells emit hazardous air pollutants like benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, black carbon and formaldehyde, many of which are known respiratory irritants.