Animals as Sentinels for Public Health Risks Associated with Oil and Gas Development: A Primer for Environmental Health Professionals

The Public Health Value of Animal Health for detecting and Assessing Risks (PDF)

“Forecasted growth in Canada’s oil and gas production and accompanying public concern is creating a need to better understand the health impacts of this industry. Inconsistent evidence, uncoordinated surveillance and ecological complexity complicate detection and assessment of public health risks. Animal sentinels (domestic or wildlife, terrestrial or aquatic) may help to better understand the pathways and effects of exposure to the various chemicals associated with the oil and gas sector.”

We used a rapid scoping review to identify trends, gaps and emerging themes in the literature and online in order to review the oil and gas sectors (including exploration, development, transport and refinement activities), related public health concerns, and criteria for effective sentinels.  We described the expected hazards and exposures to those hazards as a result of oil and gas exploration and development, and reviewed the observed health impacts of oil and gas products on animals.  Key to this discussion was an understanding of Canada’s capacity to detect, assess and communicate animal health sentinel events as a result of exposure to oil and gas products.

Oil and gas products and components have been shown under field and laboratory settings to cause measurable, adverse health outcomes in many animal species.  Health effects ranging from mild debilitation through to death may be as a result of direct exposure and acute toxicity, or indirect as a result of environmental changes or increased physiological stress. Species, duration or route of exposure, and the chemical composition of the substance also influence the observable health effects.   Cause-effect evidence is stronger with experimental and acute exposures to specific compounds than for chronic exposures under natural conditions, and questions remain about the specificity and reliability of animal data for human health risk assessment with respect to oil and gas products.

General diagnostic and field investigation services play a central role in identifying new and emerging health impacts from environmental pollution, and have been effectively deployed to assess die-offs, outbreaks and unusual pathology or productivity in animals. However, we found no ongoing, systematic approach to integrating animal health information and assessing it from a public health perspective.

Most evidence has focussed on conventional oil spills and, more recently, oil sands with much less on other sectors or other chemicals associated with extraction and refinement; limiting the use of animals as sentinels to a sub-set of settings and hazards. The interaction of different chemical compounds with environmental and ecological variables results in a highly variable system that could result in a diversity of impacts in a variety of species.  Although efforts have been made to relate oil and gas industry exposures to specific observable or measurable effects in fish, cattle and some wildlife species, there remains no single “right” sentinel species or sentinel lesion to track. The available science is not yet able to identify specific animal outcomes, prevalence or intensity that could be a direct measure of human health risk.  Additional research would be required to determine their utility across the oil and gas industries.