Study finds health risks to well-pad neighbors
Aspen, CO Colorado
GARFIELD COUNTY, Colo. – A new study warns of health risks from air pollution to those living within a half mile of gas drilling pads, particularly during the hydraulic fracturing phase.
“Our results show that the non-cancer health impacts from air emissions due to natural gas development is greater for residents living closer to wells,” reported Lisa McKenzie, lead author of the study and a research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health.
The School of Public Health issued the study Monday, completing work on a health impacts study it had started for Garfield County that was scuttled midstream last year.
Garfield County is disavowing any connection to the study and its results.
“We didn’t ask them to do this paper,” said Garfield County’s chief environmental health official, Jim Rada. “They were not sanctioned by the county, or paid by the county to do this paper.”
Rada declined to comment on the study or its possible meaning until he has had time to review it.
“I had no knowledge of what she was studying, or her methods, or the implications of her work,” Rada said of McKenzie’s work.
A press release issued by the School of Public Health stated that McKenzie analyzed three years of ambient air sample data collected from monitoring stations by the Garfield County Department of Public Health and Olsson Associates Inc. She used standard EPA methodology to estimate non-cancer health impacts and excess lifetime cancer risks for exposure to hydrocarbon substances.
The study, known as a Human Health Risk Assessment, found that potentially toxic airborne chemicals have been detected while gas wells are being hydraulically fractured, or “fracked.”
The substances included benzene, a known carcinogen, as well as ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene, all of which have been identified in connection with gas drilling activities.
Other chemicals, according to a statement from the school, include heptane, octane and diethylbenzene, the school reported. “Information on their toxicity is limited,” the study notes.
Possible negative health effects from inhaling some or all of the chemicals, according to the study, are eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing.
According to the study, the heightened health risk corresponds to the relatively short period of time when a well is being fracked, when air pollution emissions hit high levels.
Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground at a high pressure to break up rock formations and release the gas and oil. The flowback of fluids and gases from the well is a mixture of fracking fluids, groundwater, natural gas and natural gas liquids.
McKenzie noted that EPA standards are designed to be “public health proactive” and may overestimate risks.
“However, there wasn’t data available on all the chemicals emitted during the well development process,” she said. “If there had been, then it is entirely possible the risks would have been underestimated.”
The HHRA also focused on those living within a half-mile of a drilling rig. McKenzie said it is unknown whether the same hazards exist beyond that distance.
“The data does not exist at this point to determine that,” McKenzie said.
The report concludes that health risks are greater for people living closest to wells and urges a reduction in those air emissions.
Concerns over fracking in natural gas development nationwide has largely focused on its potential for polluting groundwater aquifers used by communities for drinking water.
“Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development, which has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing,” said McKenzie.
Health studies in western Garfield County related to natural gas drilling were launched after residents of Battlement Mesa raised concerns about a pending plan by Antero Resources to drill 200 wells from nine pads within the community.
In 2010, Garfield County hired the School of Public Health to conduct a two-part study of the possible health effects of Antero’s plans. The first part, called a Health Impact Assessment (HIA), was based on previously collected data.
The HIA became embroiled in controversy, including criticism by the oil and gas industry and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and was decommissioned by the Garfield County commissioners in May 2011.
McKenzie said the basic content of the new study was written to supplement the HIA, and actually was an appendix to the HIA documents submitted to the county.
“We took the work that we had done … and made it into a scientifically publishable paper,” she said.
The study will be published in an upcoming edition of the magazine, Science of the Total Environment.
Garfield County, she said, “did not financially support the scientific paper. We did this on our own. We feel the findings are significant, and we are scientists, and this is the way scientists communicate with each other.”
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.