Colorado’s Health Regulators tell Denver7 VOC Blood Tests Not Recommended
In recent weeks, there has been much debate about the merits of VOC blood testing and the health impacts for those living near oil and gas operations. Denver7 has been spearheading much of the coverage, but has, until this point, focused much of the air time on activists and those with ties to the anti-fossil fuel movement. But last week, thanks in part to questions raised by EID, Denver7 reached out directly to the experts — interviewing health regulators at the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), who told the station that they do not support wide use of this blood testing.
CDPHE’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Mike Van Dyke, sat down with Denver7’s Jennifer Kovaleski to give the state’s top health regulators an opportunity to explain the unreliable nature of these tests.
By way of background, activists are pushing to directly link oil and gas operations to health impacts and are using unreliable VOC blood testing as a way of doing so. The CDPHE has been an active partner in monitoring these purported health impacts and has published extensive data analysis, which was highlighted by EID’s recent Colorado health impacts report. One such study by CDPHE 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.”
Nevertheless, declarations at a recent Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting by an Erie mother who connected elevated VOC levels in her son’s blood to oil and natural gas development prompted many to request similar blood testing. Denver7 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. At the time, EID pointed out the inaccuracies included in the reporting.
This time around, Denver7’s most recent coverage features an extensive interview with CDPHE’s Dr. Van Dyke on the topic of VOC blood testing. Dr. Van Dyke declared that CDPHE does not think the public’s participation in VOC blood testing is useful because these tests do not determine the source of the exposure.
“VOCs like we’re talking about, things like benzene, there’s lots of different sources for them,” Van Dyke said. “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.”
Another shortcoming is that these tests focus on short-term exposure, rather than long term impacts. Dr. Van Dyke also noted that percentiles by which levels are compared are based on national averages that encompass many regions which do not have oil and natural gas operations.
“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,” Van Dyke said. “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.”
CDPHE also emphasized the inherent uncertainty that accompanies the tests and the difficulty in achieving accurate results as an additional reason to avoid depending upon them.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Dr. Van Dyke stands in lockstep with what a CDPHE official told the Erie Board of Trustees last month at a public meeting. When questioned about the VOC testing, the official pointed to the shortcomings of the test, and noted that as a result, the department instead recommends air sampling as the preferred method to detect exposure and emissions levels.
“…the more accurate way to assess exposure is through the air quality sampling, so that’s kind of our shop and that’s what we would prefer to do is respond to these complaints of health symptoms and potentially do air quality sampling.”
CDPHE already has a comprehensive monitoring system in place to test air quality. It’s clear that the experts think the existing Oil and Gas Health Information and Response (OGHIR) Program, which is equipped to rapidly respond to citizens’ concerns, is a reliable method for examining VOC exposure levels.
We applaud Denver7 for going directly to the experts in their latest reporting on VOC levels. The story has become highly charged, so it’s important to hear from the regulators in charge of both monitoring air quality and ensuring the health of Coloradans when it comes to this issue. While activists are pushing for VOC blood testing in an attempt to link oil and natural gas operations to health impacts, the extensive trail of data shows the opposite. Charges of health problems should be taken seriously by all parties and we should be sure that unbiased experts are able to weigh in on the debate.