The CDPHE report, Assessment of Potential Public Health Effects from Oil and Gas Extraction in Colorado examines the health risks from certain substances emitted from oil and gas operations and reviews other studies of health effects possibly associated with living near oil and gas operations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force in 2015 recommended the study.
As expected the CDPHE report downplays the public health impacts from exposure to oil & gas operations and calls for more monitoring and analysis, rather than immediate public health action.
“This report evaluates the existing science about whether you’re at risk if you live near oil and gas operations,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer at the department. “Going forward, we will continue to evaluate health risks using more comprehensive, relevant data currently being collected.”
The health risk portion of the study combined more than 10,000 air quality samples to evaluate how 62 substances in those samples compare to an identified “safe” level for human exposure. The report concludes:
- The concentrations of a small number of substances (benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde) in the air surrounding oil and gas operations are four to five times lower than standard health limits set for short- and long-term exposure.
- The concentrations of the other substances are five to 10,000 times lower than the standard health limits set for short- and long-term exposure.
- Cancer risks for all substances are within the “acceptable risk” range established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Overall, the current assessment suggests the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living at distances 500 feet or more from oil and gas operations.
The CDPHE’s “acceptable risk” range is based on the EPA’s Human Health Risk Assessment Guidelines, established in 1992. The EPA defines risk assessment as a scientific process that depends on 3 factors:
- How much of a chemical is present in an environmental medium (e.g., soil, water, air),
- How much contact (exposure) a person or ecological receptor has with the contaminated environmental medium, and
- The inherent toxicity of the chemical.
Variability and uncertainly are two other important factors which must be considered. Variability refers to the range of toxic response or exposure since toxin exposures can affect individuals differently. Uncertainty refers to the lack of certain knowledge due to incomplete data because toxicology tests are usually conducted on laboratory rats, and not humans. For that reason it’s important for researchers to fill in the gaps by continuing to include more data.
With the CDPHE’s acknowledgment that conclusions are based on “current assessments,” there appears to be some hope that the door has been opened a crack for further assessments.
The report also reviewed 12 previous epidemiological studies that looked at 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 authors also developed evidence statements for each of the 27 health effects in these studies and found:
- No substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.
- Limited evidence for two health effects: self-reported skin symptoms and exacerbation of asthma. Limited evidence means modest scientific findings that support an association, but there are significant limitations.
- 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. Mixed evidence means there are findings that both support and oppose an association between the exposure and the outcome, with neither direction dominating.
- A lack of evidence for three health effects, including respiratory hospitalizations and self-reported psychological symptoms and gastrointestinal symptoms. A lack of evidence means that the outcome has been researched without evidence of an association.
- 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.
All of the above emphasizes the need for more evidence and more research. As frustrating as it is for those of us living with the health impacts from oil & gas development my own experience and research has convinced me of the need for more evidence and more research.
What I know for certain is that the human body responds to exposure from oil & gas operations according to individual DNA. More human health studies are needed and those studies must include individual DNA analysis, as well as blood and urine testing. Current health studies are based on the CDPHE’s public health data. We need studies based on individual human testing. Physicians should be encouraged to collect specific health data and report to the CDPHE.
The report’s conclusions included in the Executive Summary reveal a recognition on the part of the CDPHE that the possibility for harmful health effects does indeed exist:
- Based on currently available air monitoring data, the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living near oil and gas operations.
- Studies of populations living near oil and gas operations provide limited evidence of the possibility for harmful health effects. This needs to be confirmed or disputed with higher quality studies.
- At this time, results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action, but rather indicate the need for more detailed exposure monitoring and systematic analyses of health effects of residents living near oil and gas operation.
However the recommendations are specific and definitely the most significant part of this report:
Continued monitoring of exposures to people living near oil and gas including:
- Continued evaluation of ambient air levels of priority substances in areas with substantial oil and gas operations to assess the potential for community-wide health impacts.
- Collection of air samples in communities near oil and gas operations using our Colorado Air Mobile Monitoring Laboratory to better characterize short-term exposures for those living in close proximity to oil and gas oerations.
Continued evaluation of health risk using more comprehensive exposure data such as data from the Colorado State University studies that directly measured emissions of substances from oil and gas operations in Garfield County and the north Front Range and data collected by the Colorado Air Mobile Monitoring Laboratory.
Continued monitoring of health effects in areas with substantial oil and gas operations including:
- High-quality epidemiological studies with improved characterization of exposures to directly assess the possibility of health effects in communities with substantial oil and gas operations.
- Continued citizen reporting of health concerns to the CDPHE Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program to monitor for trends in health effects that may be related to exposure.
As someone who has been beating the drum of health impacts from oil and gas operations for more than a decade, I believe these recommendations represent progress, albeit deliberately slow, from CDPHE. I remember a time when Dr. Chris Urbina was at the helm, the official position when it came to oil & gas health impacts was “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.” Total denial.
The recognition of possible harm within the report’s conclusion and the list of specific recommendations are more “acknowledgment” than we’ve seen up till now. Moving forward, it will be up to the citizens of Colorado to put the pressure on the CDPHE to follow through with more monitoring, more evaluations, and more analysis.
First and foremost report your health complaints and the source of your exposure to the CDPHE. Coloradans who have health concerns about oil and gas operations should contact the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program at 303-389-1687. Or file a complaint on the website.
This report looked at existing data. The state health department currently is conducting a health-risk assessment specific to oil and gas emissions, using newly released data from Colorado State University. That study will be completed in 2018.
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