Shared from the 2018-04-10 The Denver Post eEdition
Is living near wells hazardous?
Colorado study says: Living near an oil and gas well can increase your risk of cancer.
By John Ingold
The Denver Post
A new study led by researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health concludes that the air quality around oil and gas wells places those who live next door at an increased risk of developing cancer, but a state health official said Monday that more testing is needed to better understand what is happening.
The study looked at the concentration of cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene in the air near several oil and gas sites in northern Colorado. It contends that people living within 500 feet of an oil and gas facility have a lifetime excess cancer risk eight times higher than the upper limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. What that means is that breathing the air near an oil and gas well for years at a time places people at additional risk of developing cancer above normal rates, according to the study.
Five hundred feet is a magic number in Colorado oil and gas regulations because it is the minimum distance the state requires new wells to be set back from existing houses. But the new study found at least a small potential added cancer risk based on air samples taken slightly farther away.
“The cumulative lifetime excess cancer risk increased with decreasing distance to the nearest (oil and gas) facility,” the study’s authors wrote.
The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, which is produced by the American Chemical Society. Funding for the study came from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Boulder County Public Health Department.
In a statement, Boulder County Public Health air quality program coordinator Pam Milmoe said the study shows the need for better emissions controls on wells and better detection of leaks, as well as stricter setback rules.
“The results underscore the importance of not locating extraction facilities near homes, schools and recreation areas, and having policies that require effective monitoring and reducing emissions from oil and gas facilities, for sites already in those areas,” Milmoe said.
The new study contradicts the results of one published last year by CDPHE, which found little evidence of health harms from living near oil and gas sites. That study found that lifetime cancer risk was not increased near wells due to exposure to benzene or other chemicals.
Lisa McKenzie, a professor at the School of Public Health and the paper’s lead author, said her study used California guidelines for assessing benzene toxicity, which are stricter than the guidelines used in the CDPHE study. She said her study also incorporates newer research.
In a statement, CDPHE executive director Dr. Larry Wolk said the new study’s most dramatic findings came for measurements inside the 500-foot minimum setback and said, so far, a CDPHE mobile lab conducting air monitoring in communities near oil and gas sites has not detected worrying levels of benzene or other chemicals. The department expects to have another report based on what it calls more comprehensive air-quality data completed this summer.
Wolk and McKenzie have clashed before over her previous findings of health risks to people living near oil and gas wells, and he said the latest findings need more follow-up research.
“This report underscores the potential public health importance of the 500-foot setback and the need to collect more comprehensive air quality data in communities in close proximity to oil and gas operations,” Wolk said.
McKenzie said the added lifetime risk of developing cancer was based on an assumption of 30 years of exposure — a period that may exceed the lifespan of an oil and gas well.
“In areas of oil and gas development, no one is living next to just one well,” she said. “They’re usually living in a area with a lot of wells.”