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Fracking Threatens Health of Coloradoans Near Garfield County Oil Wells

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Drill Rig

The photographer writes: "Sections of drilling pipe and a drilling rig on a six-well pad in the Piceance Basin of Colorado."

A new study shows that the health of people living within a half-mile of an oil drilling site in Garfield County, Colorado, is at risk. Colorado School of Public Health researchers announced on Monday that they found potentially toxic chemicals in the air near wells in that county (which is about 180 miles west of Denver) during three years of monitoring. The chemicals are released into the air when natural gas is produced by hydraulic fracturing (known as “fracking”). Jim Polson and Jim Efstathiou Jr. write in a Bloomberg News article appearing in SFGate that drilling has expanded in the county.

The study, to be published in Science of the Total Environment, found the air permeated by such chemicals as trimethylbenzenes, aliaphatic hydrocarbons, and xylenes — all of which can have neurological or respiratory effects. As Mark Jaffe reports in The Denver Post, those effects could include eye irritation, headaches, sore throats, and difficulty breathing.

SFGate writes: “Non-cancer health impacts from air emissions due to natural-gas development is [are] greater for residents living closer to wells,” according to the release. “We also calculated higher cancer risks for residents living nearer to the wells.” Air near the wells was found to contain benzene, which is a carcinogen, and chemicals that can cause headaches, sore throats and/or difficulty breathing, and that can irritate eyes.

Fracking has made it possible for oil and gas companies to obtain fuel trapped in previously impenetrable shale rock, thus reversing a decline in U.S. gas production, notes SFGate. Environmentalists had previously raised concerns about water contamination resulting from the chemicals used in fracking.

Jaffe reports: “Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural gas development that has focused largely on water exposures to hydraulic fracturing,” said Lisa McKenzie, the study’s lead author and research associate at the CU-Denver School of Public Health.

“Health implications? That’s the million dollar question,” said Elena Craft, a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, who is studying air quality near gas wells in Texas.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules, SFGate writes, that:

[…] would cut smog-forming emissions by 25 percent through existing technologies that capture escaping gas, the agency said. The rule would also prevent the release of 3.4 million tons of methane, a greenhouse house that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That’s equal to taking 11 million passenger cars off the road, the EPA said. […]

Garfield County is in Colorado’s gas-producing Piceance Basin. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sampled air around some gas wells in 2000, according to a 2002 report. It concluded that concentrations of non-cancer-causing chemicals in Parachute Valley, Colorado, were too low to pose significant health risk and that benzene levels were high enough to merit further study.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tested gas sites in Garfield County from 2005 to 2007, and found levels of benzene and other pollutants that were high enough to be hazardous. There weren’t enough samples, though, to draw a clear conclusion, according to a white paper by the Colorado School of Public Health that urged more extensive testing.

Image by Ecopolitologist (Tim Hurst), used under its Creative Commons license.


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