Group monitors oil and gas health concerns
Residents now can contact state health department
by Gabi Johnston, Office of Communications
For the first time, Colorado residents have a one-stop shop to express health concerns and obtain information about oil and gas operations in their community, and the effort is garnering national recognition.
The Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Group is a collaborative effort between the Air Pollution Control Division and the Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The group includes experts in oil and gas operations, air quality measurement, exposure assessment, toxicology, environmental medicine and health communications. Its primary goals are to:
Provide rapid response to citizen and local government health concerns through use of a hotline.
Monitor and analyze health trends related to oil and gas.
Use state-of-the-art air quality measurement and risk assessment methods to assess citizen concerns.
Effectively communicate investigative findings and other objective scientific information about the potential health risks associated with oil and gas emissions to citizens and policymakers.
Earlier this year, the group received the prestigious Innovation Award from the Environmental Council of the States, which recognizes innovative approaches to address community concerns, improved collaborations and productive land use.
The response group was formed in 2015 as a result of recommendations from the Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force, which wanted to help foster responsible development of oil and gas. Since then, almost 400 health concerns have been reported to the program, and health professionals have responded to every call within one to two business days, according to Tami McMullin, a toxicologist and program manager of the response group. Calls are increasing, and McMullin attributes that to increased awareness about the hotline as well as an increase in oil and gas operations in more highly populated areas.
McMullin said most of the residents with health concerns who call the hotline or fill out a form on the department’s website report eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea; and headaches. The majority of the reported concerns seem to be related to intermittent odors from nearby oil and gas operations.
When there are several calls in the same area, Daniel Bon, the mobile lab lead investigator with the Air Pollution Control Division, dispatches a mobile lab to the site that can measure a range of air pollutants.
Usually, pollutants fall within acceptable health-based guidelines set by federal or state agencies. That does not mean, however, that odors are not causing any of the symptoms being reported, McMullin said.
“Reactions to odors are very subjective,” McMullin said. “In a workplace, for example, one person might become nauseated by the smell of another person’s perfume. That physical reaction is real, but it does not mean the perfume is, in some way, toxic.”
Information obtained from mobile lab monitoring has been a great tool for the response group, Bon said, because it provides specific pollutant information to concerned residents. It also gives the response group invaluable information about health effects.
“We are trying to understand how odors are related to pollutant concentrations,” Bon said. “Having the mobile lab allows us to quantify some of the same compounds in the air that people may be smelling and complaining about, and it provides concentration data to compare to health standards.”
McMullin said the mobile lab information, coupled with health concerns reported to the hotline, have given the department a great start to better describe the health concerns and environmental exposures that may occur near oil and gas operations. More important, however, the creation of the response group has given residents an avenue for voicing their concerns. And the response group is listening.
“We can now respond immediately to residents’ concerns,” McMullin said. “We can then use that information to work with residents, oil and gas operators, and other regulatory agencies to help determine the best approach to help address the concern. That’s a huge step in the right direction.”