Colorado officials on Thursday were set to unveil the results of a multi-year scientific study that found oil and gas operations may have a worse impact on human health than state agencies previously believed by exposing residents to benzene and other chemicals.
The study found people living between 500 feet and 2,000 feet of oil and gas fracking sites can have elevated risk of nose bleeds, headaches, dizziness and other short-term health effects.
This 380-page study commissioned by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment — made available to The Denver Post — buttresses the evidence state officials are using as a basis for tighter controls on air pollution from the oil and gas industry. And it has policy implications for state regulation of the industry because 2,000 feet is four times farther from facilities than state regulators’ current 500-foot minimum setback distance.
Officials from the state health department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission planned to make the study available to the public Thursday afternoon. It builds on Colorado’s 2017 health assessment that was based on a review of 27 studies of people living near oil and gas operations — an assessment that found limited and inconsistent evidence of harmful health effects.
State health officials under former Gov. John Hickenlooper repeatedly assured residents at the time that Colorado’s approach to oil and gas operations near people was adequately protective.
But the 2017 assessment recommended “continued evaluation of health risk using more comprehensive exposure data,” including direct measurements of pollutants conducted by Colorado State University researchers at oil and gas sites.
The report that state health and COGCC officials are releasing Thursday summarizes the results of human health risk assessments based on measurements of chemical emissions, which were conducted at 20 to 30 oil and gas extraction facilities in western Colorado and along the northern Front Range.
Colorado State University scientists measured 47 chemicals called volatile organic compounds, including benzene. For most of those chemicals, exposures were deemed safe. However, at the 500-foot distance, the highest estimated acute exposures for some of the chemicals — including benzene, toluene and ethyltoluenes — exceeded recommended levels by up to 10 times during oil and gas fracking operations, especially during what industry officials call “flowback activities” at smaller well pads.
The scientists determined exposures were still unsafe at distances of 2,000 feet from some oil and gas facilities.
Study authors indicated they took a “highly conservative” approach in assessing health harm risks, allowing for worst-case wind conditions and people who are often outside.
For people who are not regularly outside at oil and gas facilities over more than a year, the health effects were found to be less severe for all the chemicals at the 500-foot distance — with the exception of chemicals called trimethylbenzenes released during fracking activities. Exposures to harmful chemicals were found to be generally higher near smaller well pads.
The study did not address the health impacts of living near multiple well pads. It did not recommend a safe setback distance that would be protective of public health, though it is expected to help inform state regulators’ policy decisions.
This content was originally published here.