Two prominent public health organizations are pressing the State Department to study the public health implications of the Keystone XL pipeline before reaching a decision on its approval.
“There is an increasing recognition that the environments in which people live, work, learn and play have a tremendous impact on their health,” reads a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State John Kerry by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of County and City Health (NACCHO). “The administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”
The letter asks for a “comprehensive” assessment to include a review of scientific studies regarding the health effects of processing tar sands. Those could include increases in respiratory conditions like asthma, exposure to heavy metals, cancer and occupational health and safety risks affecting workers involved in tar sands production, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of APHA. APHA is the oldest organization of health professionals in the country, representing providers, officials, educators and policy makers. NACCHO represents 2,700 local health departments.
“It raised our concern,” Benjamin said of the pipeline proposal. “We’re not saying don’t build it, and we’re not saying do build it. We want to make sure the decision is data-driven and has a health component to it. At the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision based on a complicated set of metrics, but we think health ought to be one.”
Whom the pipeline might put at greatest risk is a question that “absolutely needs to be though about,” Benjamin added. “If they put it through communities already economically and physically, from a health perspective, devastated, there is going to be a disparate impact when something bad happens, like a pipeline leak.”
NACCHO’s associate executive director David Dyjack said health risks could arise at each step of production, from extraction to transportation to consumer use, but that how the local effects of tar sands differed from other fossil fuels production cycles is not well understood. “We are advocating for smart and informed decision making,” Dyjack said. “The uncertainty around the tar sands led us to submit the letter—why don’t we get some clarity?”