Naturally I wondered what she would think about the state’s latest report. When it comes to oil & gas health impacts, whenever another new study is released there’s this general sense of kicking the can down the proverbial road.
Specifically I asked: What’s wrong with this report?
For one thing, it’s a government study, and what we often find with government-backed research is the sin of omission. In the case of the latest CDPHE report, there is no mention of Dr. Colborn’s extensive research that has shown the harmful health effects caused by prolonged, low dose exposure to toxic chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, many of which are used in oil & gas operations.
For the uninitiated, Dr. Theo Colborn was the founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). For three decades, she studied the effects of endocrine disruptors used in oil & gas operations on the human (and animal) endocrine system, as well as the environment. Her research broke new ground in science and medicine as she expanded our understanding of exactly how endocrine disruptors break down the human body over time. After Dr. Colborn’s death on December 14, 2014, TEDX scientists have carried on her legacy with new projects focusing on prenatal exposures and actual disease and disorder outcomes relative to endocrine disruptors.
As I was reading the CDPHE report this week, I kept hearing Dr. Colborn’s voice saying: “There is no safe level of exposure … ”
But I couldn’t remember where I heard her say those words. Thanks to the google machine I found it.
In 2012, she wrote to President Obama about the impacts of toxic emissions from oil & gas development on the endocrine system as they relate to the future of humankind. Click here to view the video of Dr. Colborn reading her letter. In it, she said:
“If you want to go after the terrorist that poses the most imminent threat to our nation and our economy, you need to make these stealth chemicals your number one priority. There is no safe level of exposure to many of these chemicals. Keep in mind both the ravages of climate change and the increased endocrine epidemics are intimately connected with the increasing use of fossil fuels and their bi-products. By drilling deep into the bowels of the earth for coal, oil and natural gas, we have unwittingly and catastrophically altered the chemistry of the biosphere and the human womb.”
In the last decade of her life, Dr. Colborn had focused her research on the health effects of natural gas drilling. The study that thrust her obscure research center in sleepy little Paonia, Colorado, onto the worldwide stage was released in December 2012. Co-authored by Dr. Colborn, the report titled Hormones and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals: Low-Dose Effects and Nonmonotonic Dose Responses provided peer-reviewed, scientific evidence that low-dose and/or ambient exposure to endocrine disruptors interferes with development and function in the human and animal endocrine systems. The endocrine system produces hormones that control reproduction, brain development, and the immune system. The fact is, in one way or another, every tissue in the body is affected by hormones.
Even though the report doesn’t specifically mention drilling and fracking, Dr. Colborn had authored a separate peer-reviewed study that same year in which she assessed air quality surrounding well pads in Garfield County and isolated 649 chemicals used during drilling operations and identified at least 130 of those as endocrine disruptors. They included petroleum distillates, methanol, as well as other undefined compounds with names like dibromoacetonitrile and ethoxylated nonylphenol.
Then the TEDX study followed up with the major revelation of harmful health effects from prolonged exposure to those endocrine disruptors. The two studies combined link long-term health impacts to the oil & gas industry’s widespread use of endocrine disrupting chemicals, and the resulting emissions from sites and facilities.
The scientists focused on a phenomenon called “nonmonotonic dose response,” which means that endocrine disrupting chemicals often do not act in a typical way; they can have health effects at low doses but no effects or different effects at high doses.
The report’s lead author Dr. Laura Vandenberg said in an interview, “Hormones function at concentrations of parts per billion or parts per trillion. Think of a part per trillion as a single drop of water in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. So you can imagine that anything affecting it in a small way can have a drastic effect on health.”
“There are effects at low doses you don’t see at high doses,” she continued. “The high-dose tests don’t look for the effects on brain development, for example, or prenatal exposure. During fetal development, if you don’t have the right levels of [hormones] in the thyroid, you can have severe mental retardation. And the difference between enough and not enough is a very slim margin.”
The EPA generally evaluates the health risks by giving large doses of a particular chemical to lab rats to see if it kills them. Then they calculate a lower dose that’s considered safe for human and animal exposure. But they don’t test the lower doses to see whether they, too, cause health effects.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has publicly acknowledged the importance of low-dose testing. And in early 2011, a group of scientific associations representing 40,000 researchers wrote an open letter to the journal Science about “the growing recognition that currently accepted testing paradigms and government review practices are inadequate for chemicals with hormone-like actions.”
While the EPA does recognize endocrine disruptors, the importance of low-dose testing has been slow to catch on with governmental agencies.
So when the CDPHE says “Cancer risks for all substances are within the ‘acceptable risk’ range established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” they have not taken into consideration ambient exposure from low doses of the substances (chemicals) over a prolonged period of time.
Some symptoms take years to materialize.
When you stop and think about the current invasion of oil & gas drilling into our residential neighborhoods and communities across Colorado, the potential for harmful health effects is chilling. Because children and developing babies are particularly vulnerable to endocrine-disrupting chemicals used during drilling and fracking the damage to their endocrine systems could be with them for the rest of their lives, much like lead exposure.
The latest CDPHE report clearly identifies the need for more studies. However, in order for the public to trust any future study, the state must recognize and incorporate low-dose testing, rather than relying on EPA health risk assessment guidelines from the last century. And we the people must put pressure to bear on the CDPHE and insist they focus on specific research that includes high and low-dose testing for prolonged, ambient exposure to toxic chemicals.
During a 2014 interview with Earthworks regarding her research, Dr. Colborn said: “What most people don’t know when we poke a hole in the ground, when the methane and natural gas comes up; it comes up with what I call ‘hitchhikers’ — very dangerous toxic chemicals. And to date they have been ignored by those who are responsible for protecting our health. Frankly I feel that endocrine disruption, the fossil fuel derived problem, is far more imminent than climate change because we are not going to have enough people who are healthy enough and intelligent enough to bail us out of the dilemma we have got ourselves in.”