January 21, 2018

Study reports VOC-polluted air, health problems related to hydrocarbon development

A study recently published in the journal Atmospheric Environment reports that hydrocarbon processing in the industrial heartland of Alberta has been correlated with remarkable elevations in Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) levels in the area, raising serious concerns about the relationship between these high VOC levels and the incidence of various cancers in the population of the region.

The study, “Air quality in the Industrial Heartland of Alberta, Canada and potential impacts on human health,” concludes that “Even though the Heartland is situated within a generally rural area, many maximum concentrations were comparable to those measured in the world’s largest cities. Thirty VOCs were present at levels above 1 ppbv, and maximum propene and i-pentane levels exceeded 100 ppbv. Some of the largest VOC excesses were measured in samples designated as “no smell”, showing that absence of odor does not necessarily indicate good air quality.”

Air quality in the Industrial Heartland of Alberta, Canada and potential impacts on human health

Isobel J. Simpson
Stuart Battermanb
Simone Meinardia
Barbara Barlettaa
Donald R. Blakea

ABSTRACT: The “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing center, with more than 40 major chemical, petrochemical, and oil and gas facilities. Emissions from these industries affect local air quality and human health. This paper characterizes ambient levels of 77 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the region using high-precision measurements collected in summer 2010. Remarkably strong enhancements of 43 VOCs were detected, and concentrations in the industrial plumes were often similar to or even higher than levels measured in some of the world’s largest cities and industrial regions. For example maximum levels of propene and i-pentane exceeded 100 ppbv, and 1,3-butadiene, a known carcinogen, reached 27 ppbv. Major VOC sources included propene fractionation, diluent separation and bitumen processing. Emissions of the measured VOCs increased the hydroxyl radical reactivity (kOH), a measure of the potential to form downwind ozone, from 3.4 s1 in background air to 62 s1 in the most concentrated plumes. The plume value was comparable to polluted megacity values, and acetaldehyde, propene and 1,3-butadiene contributed over half of the plume kOH. Based on a 13-year record (1994 e2006) at the county level, the incidence of male hematopoietic cancers (leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) was higher in communities closest to the Industrial Heartland compared to neighboring counties. While a causal association between these cancers and exposure to industrial emissions cannot be confirmed, this pattern and the elevated VOC levels warrant actions to reduce emissions of known carcinogens, including benzene and 1,3-butadiene.

Click here to see a PDF of the full study:  Simpson2013-VOCs