Health department report reviews existing science on oil and gas health effects

Mark Salley, Communications Director | 303-692-2013 |
DENVER— A report released last week by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concludes the risk of harmful health effects is low for Coloradans living near oil and gas operations. The report calls for more study, rather than immediate public health action.
Assessment of Potential Public Health Effects from Oil and Gas Extraction in Colorado” examines the health risks from certain substances emitted from oil and gas operations and reviews other studies of health effects possibly associated with living near oil and gas operations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force in 2015 recommended the study.
“This report evaluates the existing science about whether you’re at risk if you live near oil and gas operations,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer at the department. “Going forward, we will continue to evaluate health risks using more comprehensive, relevant data currently being collected.”
The health risk portion of the study combined more than 10,000 air quality samples to evaluate how 62 substances in those samples compare to an identified “safe” level for human exposure. The report concludes:
  • The concentrations of a small number of substances (benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde) in the air surrounding oil and gas operations are four to five times lower than standard health limits set for short- and long-term exposure.
  • The concentrations of the other substances are five to 10,000 times lower than the standard health limits set for short- and long-term exposure.
  • Cancer risks for all substances are within the “acceptable risk” range established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Overall, the current assessment suggests the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living at distances 500 feet or more from oil and gas operations.
The report also reviewed 12 previous epidemiological studies that looked at potential health effects from living near oil and gas operations. Overall, the review concluded that studies of populations living near oil and gas operations provide limited evidence of the possibility for harmful health effects, which needs to be confirmed or disputed with higher-quality studies. The authors also developed evidence statements for each of the 27 health effects in these studies and found:
  • No substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.
  • Limited evidence for two health effects: self-reported skin symptoms and exacerbation of asthma. Limited evidence means modest scientific findings that support an association, but there are significant limitations.
  • Mixed evidence for 11 health effects, including four different birth outcomes; hematological childhood cancers; hospitalizations for cancer, migraines, self-reported respiratory symptoms and musculoskeletal symptoms; and hospitalizations for neurological and hematological/immune diseases. Mixed evidence means there are findings that both support and oppose an association between the exposure and the outcome, with neither direction dominating.
  • A lack of evidence for three health effects, including respiratory hospitalizations and self-reported psychological symptoms and gastrointestinal symptoms. A lack of evidence means that the outcome has been researched without evidence of an association.
  • Insufficient evidence for 11 health effects, including three different birth defects; self-reported neurological symptoms; self-reported cardiovascular symptoms; overall childhood cancer incidence; childhood central nervous system tumors; and hospitalizations for psychological, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal symptoms. Insufficient evidence means that the outcome has not been adequately studied.
This report looked at existing data. The state health department currently is conducting a health-risk assessment specific to oil and gas emissions, using newly released data from Colorado State University. That study will be completed in 2018.
Coloradans who have health concerns about oil and gas operations can contact the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program at 303-389-1687.
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