When California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a goal to phase out oil drilling statewide by 2045, he focused on its impact on climate change. But oil drilling is also a health problem, particularly in Los Angeles, where thousands of oil wells still dot the city.
These wells can emit toxic chemicals such as benzene and other irritants into the air, often just feet from homes, schools and parks.
Oil was abundant and flowed close to the surface. In early 20th-century California, sparse laws governed mineral extraction, and rights to oil accrued to those who could pull it out of the ground first. This ushered in a period of rampant drilling, with wells and associated machinery crisscrossing the landscape. By the mid-1920s, Los Angeles was one of the largest oil-exporting regions in the world.
Tensions over land use, extraction rights and subsequent drops in oil prices due to overproduction eventually resulted in curbs on drilling and a long-standing practice of oil companies’ voluntary “self-regulation,” such as noise-reduction technologies. The industry began touting these voluntary approaches to deflect governmental regulation.
Since the 2000s, the advance of extractive technologies to access harder-to-reach deposits has led to a resurgence of oil extraction activities. As extraction in some neighborhoods has ramped up, people living in South Los Angeles and other neighborhoods in oil fields have noticed frequent odors, nosebleeds and headaches.
Closer to urban oil drilling, poorer lung function
The City of Los Angeles currently requires no buffers or setbacks between oil extraction and homes. Approximately 75% of active oil or gas wells are located within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of “sensitive land uses,” such as homes, schools, child care facilities, parks or senior residential facilities.
Despite that proximity and over a century of oil drilling in Los Angeles, there have been few studies on how it affects residents’ health. We have been working with community health workers to gauge the impact oil wells are having on residents, particularly on its historically Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
The first step was a door-to-door survey of 813 neighbors from 203 households near wells in Las Cienegas oilfield, just south and west of downtown. We found that asthma was significantly more common among people living near South Los Angeles oil wells than among residents of Los Angeles County as a whole. Nearly half the people we spoke with, 45%, didn’t know oil wells were operating nearby, and 63% didn’t know how to contact local regulatory authorities to report odors or environmental hazards.
Next, we measured lung function of 747 long-term residents, ages 10 to 85, living near two drilling sites. Poor lung capacity, measured as the amount of air a person can exhale after taking a deep breath, and lung strength, how strongly the person can exhale, and are both predictors of health problems including respiratory disease, death from cardiovascular problems and early death in general.
We found that the closer someone lived to an active or recently idle well site, the poorer that person’s lung function, even after adjusting for such other risk factors as smoking, asthma and living near a freeway. This research demonstrates a significant relationship between living near oil wells and worsened lung health.
People living up to 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) downwind of a well site showed lower lung function on average than those living farther away and upwind. The effect on their lungs’ capacity and strength was similar to impacts of living near a freeway or, for women, being exposed to secondhand smoke.
When oil production at a site stopped, we observed significant reductions in such toxins as benzene, toluene and n-hexane in the air in adjacent neighborhoods. These chemicals are known irritants, carcinogens and reproductive toxins. They are also associated with dizziness, headaches, fatigue, tremors and respiratory system irritation, including difficulty breathing and, at higher levels, impaired lung function.
But while the governor declared that “California needs to move beyond oil,” his current timeline would allow oil wells to continue operating for the next two decades. A variety of policies, including buffers, phaseouts and emissions controls, will need to be considered to protect public health and accelerate the transition to cleaner energy sources.