BOSTON — Local officials are calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to require studies of health and safety risks before approving any new natural gas infrastructure.
In separate letters, boards of health representing 100 communities including Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, Methuen and Essex raise myriad concerns about the state's reliance on natural gas as a fuel source. They’ve asked the state to create a public health campaign aimed at educating energy consumers about the possible dangers.
Health officials cite studies suggesting a link between stovetop cooking using gas, and high rates of childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments.
Others note the increased air pollution from thousands of leaks along natural gas lines — not to mention the hazards of explosions and fires.
They want the Baker administration to require assessments for any new natural gas projects to gauge potential risks to the public.
"Our current reliance on natural gas is harmful to human health during extraction, shipment, delivery and use," said Dr. Madeleine Scammell, an environmental health professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, at a briefing on Tuesday. "Investments in gas infrastructure should require full assessment of the physical and chemical hazards."
Exposure to indoor air pollution from cooking with fossil fuels is a leading factor in childhood asthma, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, heart disease and lung cancer, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Pregnant women exposed to household air pollution from cooking are at increased risk for stillbirth and other complications.
The letter-writing campaign is part of an ongoing effort by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to accelerate a shift to wind, solar and renewable energies.
Several panelists at Tuesday's Statehouse briefing are fighting an air quality permit for a proposed natural gas compressor station in Weymouth.
Energy company Enbridge wants to build the station near the Fore River as part of its Atlantic Bridge project to connect natural gas pipeline infrastructure. The state issued an air-quality permit for the facility, a key step toward final approval, in January, but residents in Weymouth, Quincy, Hingham and Braintree are appealing.
Aside from the costs, opponents say the station and other natural gas infrastructure only deepens the state's dependence on a fossil fuel whose emissions have been blamed, in part, for climate change.
Industry officials say gas is a clean alternative to burning coal and oil, and they argue that solar and wind producers alone cannot provide enough energy to meet the state's demand.
Baker wants the state to pursue a mix of hydropower, solar and wind to meet its long-term energy needs as well as a court-ordered mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
His administration placed a temporary moratorium on the approval of new gas projects following the fires and explosions that ripped through the Merrimack Valley in September, killing a teenager, injuring more than two-dozen and damaging homes.
The state has also hired a private consulting firm to assess the safety of the gas distribution system.
While many of the battles over pipeline expansions have largely focused on environmental costs and safety concerns, officials say health risks shouldn't be overlooked.
Steve Jones, a retired physician and volunteer for the Sierra Club, said many people just aren't aware of the serious health risks.
"Those familiar blue flames on a gas stove produce nitrogen dioxide, which is a potent respiratory irritant," he said at Tuesday's briefing. "Unfortunately many parents, public health staff and boards of health do not know that gas stove cooking increases the risk of asthma."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.