Researcher: Health impact studies under way
Ryan Summerlin June 26, 2014
PARACHUTE — Many studies are under way to help assess health effects of natural gas drilling, but a great deal of critical information simply remains unknown, a researcher with the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health told a standing-room-only forum Wednesday at the Parachute library.
While research has shown a range of negative health effects, from nosebleeds to slightly elevated cancer risks to “psychosocial stress” from reduced quality of life, significant details are missing, Lisa McKenzie said. McKenzie was the lead researcher on the Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment that was defunded by Garfield County commissioners in 2011.
She has continued research on public health concerns related to natural gas extraction, and told the 75 to 80 people at the “Oil and Gas Impacts on Human Health” forum that Garfield County was a national leader in monitoring air quality in gas-producing areas.
But overall data is insufficient to target precise solutions, she indicated.
“We’ve taken measurements of air quality, but we still don’t have those measurements of what individuals are exposed to,” she said. “Without that, we don’t really know if oil and gas development is the source of the exposures or if it’s something else. And if it’s oil and gas, what activities are the significant ones we should be paying attention to?
“We really don’t know what the distance a home or a school should be from an oil and gas operation to minimize health impacts,“ she added.
The forum, presented by the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Battlement Concerned Citizens, drew a crowd mostly of residents concerned about exposure, along with several defenders of gas development.
Citizens alliance chairwoman Leslie Robinson said the sponsoring groups seek balance in the polarized debate, and hope for additional protections for residents, including increased distances required between drilling sites and homes.
Robinson also said the group hopes McKenzie’s Health Impact Assessment can be completed.
If that is to occur, McKenzie said, the study would need to be redesigned to reflect changes since it was suspended.
State regulations have changed, including new air quality standards, and the oil and gas operator in the area has changed since Antero Resources, which had proposed to drill within the Battlement Mesa residential area, sold its Piceance Basin assets to Ursa Resources Group.
More data will also soon be available from other studies, including a Colorado State University air quality study that is being partially financed by gas developers and Garfield County.
If the Battlement Mesa study is reopened, McKenzie said, it should include a health registry for residents of the area and an external scientific advisory panel, perhaps of experts from outside Colorado.
Also appearing at the forum was Dr. John Hughes, of Aspen Integrative Medicine, who is part of an emerging study of volatile organic compounds associated with gas emissions, and their potential impact on human health.
Hughes said he began studying why some of his patients were sick and he couldn’t make them get better. He did a study of 21 patients, 11 in Erie, a gas extraction area on the edge of Weld County, and a group in Carbondale. Blood tests found elevated levels of the toxin ethylbenzene in 10 of the 11 people in Erie and no abnormal exposure in Carbondale, which is not near significant gas development.
“If you guys had somebody walking around your village here around Mesa or Parachute and he was hitting people in the nose and giving them nosebleeds, what would you do?” Hughes asked.
Taunting Gov. John Hickenlooper as “Frackenlooper,” Hughes said government isn’t protecting people, and residents may have to sue the industry to get results. He also riled some of the crowd by suggesting that the best solution to escape harmful effects of extraction would be to move.
Robert and Stella Ramos of Spring Creek, who got “good money” from gas operations until prices dropped with the nationwide fracking boom, said they couldn’t sell their land.
“I’d move anyplace but around here” if the property would sell, Stella Ramos said after the forum.
Hughes discussed his tests on the Tibbetts family of Silt. Family members had elevated levels of ethylbenzene and other toxins in their blood, that he said was because they were “getting exposed from natural gas.”
Asked if that association could be made from Hughes’ data, McKenzie said no.
“I wouldn’t be able to attribute it to the gas wells,” she said. “I would say there could be an association … but these same VOCs come from other sources so at this point a study would need to be done to make that link.”
Hughes said his “wasn’t meant to be a super-validated study.”
His rhetoric, which he later said was intentionally provocative to spur action, drew backlash from David Ludlam, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s West Slope Chapter. Ludlam cited the industry’s support, with local governments, for the CSU study as a proactive step responsive to concerns.
“I thought the humor and the hyperbole and some of the things in your presentation make those conversations difficult for us to have,” Ludlam told Hughes. “In some ways they’re disparaging. … It’s distracting to the overall constructive conversation that we have to have.”
Hughes responded that, “It needs to be cleaned up. You almost have to take it to the extreme in seeing how detrimental it could be in order to be motivated.”