State: Drilling health risk to residents low
State health officials have concluded the health risks for people living near oil and gas development are low.
A new Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report says there’s no need for immediate public health action, but recommends the issue undergo more study.
It says that evidence suggests the risks of harmful health effects is low for people living 500 feet or more from oil and gas operations. With certain exceptions, state rules currently require at least a 500-foot setback between drilling pads and homes.
The study was conducted based on a recommendation by a state oil and gas task force in 2015.
“This report evaluates the existing science about whether you’re at risk if you live near oil and gas operations,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the department, said in a news release. “Going forward, we will continue to evaluate health risks using more comprehensive, relevant data currently being collected.”
The agency says the study relied on more than 10,000 air quality samples in areas of oil and gas development on the Front Range and in northwest Colorado to look at how 62 substances in the samples compared to identified safe levels of human exposure. It found that concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde were four to five times lower than standards for short- and long-term exposure. Concentrations of the other substances are five to 10,000 times lower than the standard limits, and cancer risks for all substances are within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s range of acceptable risk, the department says.
The study also reviewed 12 other studies on potential health effects from living near oil and gas operations.
“Overall, the review concluded that studies of populations living near oil and gas operations provide limited evidence of the possibility for harmful health effects, which needs to be confirmed or disputed with higher quality studies,” the department says.
Looking at 27 health effects evaluated in those studies, it found no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.
Specifically, it found:
■ Limited evidence for self-reported skin symptoms and exacerbation of asthma, meaning there’s modest scientific findings supporting an association, but there are significant limitations to those findings.
■ Mixed evidence “for 11 health effects, including four different birth outcomes; hematological childhood cancers; hospitalizations for cancer, migraines, self-reported respiratory symptoms and musculoskeletal symptoms; and hospitalizations for neurological and hematological/immune diseases,” the news release said. “Mixed evidence means there are findings that both support and oppose an association between the exposure and the outcome, with neither direction dominating.”
The review also found a lack of evidence of association between oil and gas development and respiratory hospitalizations, self-reported psychological symptoms and gastrointestinal symptoms. And it found insufficient evidence “for 11 health effects, including three different birth defects; self-reported neurological symptoms; self-reported cardiovascular symptoms; overall childhood cancer incidence; childhood central nervous system tumors; and hospitalizations for psychological, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal symptoms. Insufficient evidence means that the outcome has not been adequately studied.”
While the new report looks at existing data, the health department is doing a health-risk assessment specific to oil and gas emissions, using newly released Colorado State University data from studies in Garfield County and on the Front Range. The Garfield County study was funded by the county and from industry donations.
Lisa McKenzie is a researcher with the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied possible health impacts from drilling and has seen that research repeatedly scrutinized by the health department, including in its newest study. She declined to comment on the study Tuesday because she hadn’t had a chance to read it.
Said Dave Devanney, a Battlement Mesa resident concerned about ongoing drilling around that community and Ursa Resources’ plans to drill within it this year, “I guess we’re all in the position where we can select the studies and reports that we want to talk about and ignore the ones that we don’t want to talk about.”
He indicated that people in Battlement Mesa remain concerned regardless of what the department and the industry might say.
“In spite of the studies that say the air quality is fine and there’s nothing to worry about there are people who actually feel ill in their homes and in their community and when they leave their homes and go somewhere else they feel better and when they come back home they feel ill again,” he said.
Said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, “The natural gas companies of the West Slope worked with Colorado State University’s School of Atmospheric Studies and many similar efforts in Colorado and around the nation continue advancing the ever-growing body of science which demonstrated natural gas operations are safe. The findings also reinforce our belief that technology will continue reducing impacts in the future.
“The health department’s assessment is merely a reflection of what we have long known about the safety of our operations.”