Colorado Health Regulators Again Discourage Use of VOC Blood Tests
For the second time in three months, an official with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) – the state’s top medical and environmental regulators – has emphasized the agency does not endorse the use of volatile organic compound (VOCs) blood tests as a means to verify alleged health impacts for those living near oil and gas operations.
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported Monday that CDPHE oil and gas liaison Sean Hackett stated during a recent Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting that, “Air monitoring around those oil and gas sites really is the best approach.” Hackett echoed comments made by CDPHE chief toxicologist Dr. Mike Van Dyke during a July Denver 7 interview regarding the numerous limitations and challenges presented by VOC blood tests.
According to the Daily Sentinel, Hackett noted that blood tests cannot determine the source of detected VOCs, which can come from multiple sources, according to the CDPHE website. Hackett also noted that such tests require specialized lab equipment and must adhere to stringent Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) protocols to produce reliable results. He indicated he is unaware of any Colorado labs that possess said equipment or adhere to CDC protocol. Because of these complexities, Hackett noted, blood testing presents a high chance of false positives and contamination.
There has been much debate about the merits of VOC blood testing and the health impacts for those living near oil and gas operations ever since Denver7 aired a story featuring an Erie mother who connected elevated VOC levels in her son’s blood to oil and natural gas development.
The media outlet had put her concerns on full display without much question or pushback, and in subsequent reports included a doctor with known anti-fossil fuel ties as a third-party medical source to back up her unfounded claims. However, Denver7’s coverage prompted many to request similar blood testing.
But after EID pointed out the inaccuracies included in the reporting – which had relied almost exclusively on accounts from activists and those with ties to the anti-fossil fuel movement – Denver7 interviewed CDPHE’s Van Dyke, who set the record straight on the many limitations of VOC blood testing, stating that,
“VOCs like we’re talking about, things like benzene, there’s lots of different sources for them. So when we get a blood test back, we’re not sure if this person is exposed from an oil and gas operation [or] they’re expose from driving their car into their garage, increasing the benzene level in their home.”
“Your blood test is only reflecting your last few hours to a day or two of exposure. So whatever you did most-recently could really affect the tests. In terms of percentiles … it’s also important to keep in mind that the entire percentile is still within the normal population range, and the way that’s done is the CDC does sampling across the United States … and these are normal people who are not exposed or don’t live close to oil and gas.”
“I think these blood tests are a huge challenge. These blood tests really require really specialized methods. They require really specialized techniques to ensure there’s not contamination. What we’re aware of is really, at the levels we’re talking about … we’re only aware of one laboratory in the country who can analyze consistently at those levels, and that’s the CDC laboratory.”
As the Daily Sentinel reported, even go-to anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie agrees that using VOC blood tests to draw connections between oil and gas development and public health impacts is unreliable and inappropriate,
“[McKenzie] said analyzing for benzene in a blood sample is very complicated, in part because there are so many sources of benzene in the environment, it doesn’t last long in the blood, and there’s potential for contamination occurring during steps ranging from sample collection to lab analysis.”
If the right quality-assurance control procedures are not in place, ‘it’s very difficult if not impossible to interpret the result,” she said. ‘Sampling of benzene (in) blood, it’s really tricky,’ she said.
“Doing air-quality monitoring rather than blood testing, she said, ‘would be a lot more straightforward, I think.’”
The CDPHE has done extensive air sampling in areas near oil and gas development in Colorado, repeatedly finding that emissions are protective of public health.
This includes a Garfield County air quality assessment released in May that found a “low risk of long-term harmful health effects due to VOC exposure” from nearby oil and natural gas development.
A more comprehensive 2017 CDPHE report examined 10,000 air samples in proximate areas to “substantial” oil and natural gas operations, finding “safe” levels of emissions and concluding, “the risk of harmful health effects is low for resident living [near] (sic) oil and gas operations,” and that “results…do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”
The debate over fracking and its alleged public health impacts is one that should be driven by science. And the scientific consensus with regard to the recent debate over the use of blood testing to link emissions from oil and gas development to elevated VOC levels couldn’t be clearer – the top health officials in the state (as well as the anti-fracking movement’s go-to researcher) agree that such tests are not appropriate, and that air monitoring is “the best approach.”
That “best approach” has consistently shown that oil and natural gas development is protective of public health.