Mountain States

State Health Officials: “Risk of Harmful Health Effects Is Low” for Residents Living Near Oil & Gas Operations

On Tuesday at an oil and gas forum in Broomfield, Colorado, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) released a landmark health assessment that found that “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations,” and that “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.” Yet despite the significance of these findings, the report received almost no press attention.

The lack of press coverage is made all the more interesting considering that at the last minute, Lisa McKenzie, who was scheduled to speak at the forum on her (widely debunked) health research, was suddenly dropped from the program and replaced by the legitimate researchers of the CDPHE who presented on their own report.

The findings are a huge blow to the anti-fracking movement, which has tried to make health claims the linchpin of their campaign against fracking. CDPHE collected over 10,000 air samples in parts of the state with “substantial” oil and gas operations. “This isn’t cherry-picked air sampling data,” said CDPHE’s head of environmental epidemiology Dr. Mike Van Dyke. “This is all air sampling data.”

The assessment addressed many of the health-related concerns raised by Broomfield residents at the forum. Reassuringly for them, the data collected by CDPHE indicated that the substances emitted by oil and natural gas operations did not reach levels that would be considered harmful to human health, even when measured against conservative standards intended to protect sensitive individuals.

Here are the main conclusions of the assessment:

  • “All measured air concentrations were below short- and long-term ‘safe’ levels of exposure for non-cancer health effects, even for sensitive populations.”
  • “Overall, available air monitoring data suggest low risk of harmful health effects from combined exposure to all substances.”
  • “All four cancer-causing substances (benzene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde) were within acceptable risk range, even for combined exposures.”
  • “Two substances, ethane and methane, do not produce any health effects except at extremely high exposures.”
  • “All other 56 substances were 5-10,000 times below standard health-based reference values and considered in the negligible risk range.”

For those who remain concerned about the very existence of the substances, Dr. Van Dyke explained that the level of exposure is key, especially considering how many of the substances examined in the assessment are also emitted by sources other than oil and natural gas development – including vehicle traffic and consumer products such as nail polish, detergents, sealants, aerosol antiperspirants and deodorants. “Each can be a health concern at some level of exposure,” Dr. Van Dyke said.

To illustrate why the level of exposure is critical, Dr. Van Dyke offered the example of saccharin, an artificial sweetener that prompted a health scare in the 1980s when researchers discovered that it caused bladder tumors in laboratory animals. Later, however, researchers found that humans would have to consume the equivalent of a hundred cans of Diet Coke in a single day in order to experience those same health effects – “and, I mean, I don’t know anyone who drinks quite that much Diet Coke,” Dr. Van Dyke said. Saccharin was then removed from the carcinogen list altogether. “What’s important in terms of exposure to these hazardous substances is how much you’re exposed to,” Dr. Van Dyke concluded.

The findings of the new health assessment are consistent with CDPHE’s previous reassurances that the public need not worry about the health impacts of oil and natural gas development. Recently, CDPHE’s Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director Dr. Wolk told the Greeley Tribune that “we don’t see anything to be concerned with” with regard to oil and natural gas development and public health:

“I’m not going to tell anybody to go drink a pint of liquid petroleum or stand over an active well site and wave the fumes in to breath[e] them in. … Nobody would argue that this stuff isn’t toxic, but it’s all about exposure to toxins, and we don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time.”

CDPHE’s new health assessment and presentation to the Broomfield community proved timely, in light of the anti-fracking research that was released just one week prior by Lisa McKenzie, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado who was originally scheduled to speak at the meeting – but was later removed from the agenda after her paper was disavowed by CDPHE.

Comparing the 16 cases McKenzie relied on to attempt to establish a link between oil and natural gas operations and childhood leukemia to the 10,000 air samples CDPHE collected for the new health assessment, it is no wonder McKenzie’s paper received no mention during the meeting. Energy In Depth hopes Broomfield residents found relief and comfort in a fact-based discussion of the risks and rewards of oil and natural gas development – and saw agenda-driven fear-mongering for what it is.


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