A physician-led nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which examines potential health threats from climate change and environmental toxins, has raised concerns that emissions from oil and gas production could be causing more severe effects of COVID-19.
While Physicians for Social Responsibility was unable to say definitively that drilling operations were to blame for high numbers of COVID-19 in some oil-heavy counties in New Mexico and Colorado, the group sent a letter to newly elected President Joe Biden, asking his administration to prioritize further studies into the possible link between drilling-related air pollution and COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes.
The request comes as Biden signed an executive order last week halting oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
Said Dr. Edward Ketyer of Pennsylvania, one of the authors of the nonprofit’s study: “We wanted to see if in the middle of a global pandemic caused by a serious respiratory virus, whether air pollution from oil and gas development was making the situation worse for residents living or working nearby. We wanted to make people aware of the growing evidence of a link between air pollution and COVID-19 incidence and poor outcomes.”
Ketyer and Dr. Lisa McKenzie examined five counties in New Mexico — Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, San Juan and Sandoval — and five in Colorado, all of which had significant oil and gas operations. In New Mexico, they discovered the number of COVID-19 cases was higher than expected in three counties and lower in two. But they found only one county with a higher than expected number of deaths.
“Disproportionately high levels of cases were observed among people aged 20-49 years and Native Americans,” the report said.
It cited 202 deaths at the time of the study in San Juan County, one of New Mexico’s hardest hit from the pandemic, compared to an expected death count of 16, based on population and other factors. The number of deaths there has since grown to 377.
Ketyer and McKenzie’s findings of case numbers were similar in the Colorado counties, but there were more COVID-19 deaths than expected.
Ketyer and many of his colleagues in the nonprofit felt the study should prompt additional action.
“With Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans being hit the hardest by the pandemic, pollution coming off oil and gas infrastructure is an environmental justice crisis,” Ketyer said. “In addition to the elderly, people with chronic health conditions that are associated with chronically breathing dirty air [chronic lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and kidney disease] are at higher risk of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 and having poor outcomes.”
Barbara Gottlieb, the group’s director for the environment and health, said the study raises “an important cautionary message. People need to be more aware of the dangers of these oil and gas operations, especially during this pandemic.”
McKenzie was more cautious, saying the study’s results “are inconclusive.”
“It might not be oil and gas sites themselves but other factors that might be involved,” she said. “We need a more rigorous long-term epidemiological study.”
Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, called the report “absurdly thin and hollow, with findings that actually appear to contradict their claims.”
“Fact and science-based data is best left to experts like those within the CDC and Department of Health, rather than front groups with a radical political agenda,” he said.
Other studies have found links between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. A report released in May by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and one released in October by the Georgia State University Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, both stated long-term exposure to fine-particle pollution is associated with an increase in the COVID-19 death rate.
“Moving away from fossil oil and gas as quickly as possible in the most equitable way possible, is the direction, science tells us, that we should go in,” Ketyer said. “We should all demand that everyone — individuals, businesses, oil and gas, multinational corporations and our representatives in government — take every safeguard to protect the health and well-being of all Americans.”