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News Archive

April 9, 2018

New study shows unacceptable health risk levels for those living near oil and gas facilities

Lifetime cancer risk for those living within 500ft of an oil & gas facility is eight times higher than the EPA’s upper risk threshold

Boulder County, Colo. - A recently released study of air samples collected across Colorado’s Northern Front Range shows elevated health risk for residents in proximity to oil and gas development. The study, led by Lisa McKenzie, PhD, MPH, Assistant Research Professor, at the Colorado School of Public Health, collated hundreds of samples from three analyses sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boulder County Public Health, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Boulder County Commissioners funded the analysis included in the study in 2014 in order to quantify methane, ozone, and volatile organic compound (VOC) levels from sites across Boulder County.

The study found that the lifetime cancer risk for people living within 500 feet of an oil and gas facility is eight times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s upper risk threshold (8.3 per 10,000 vs 1 per 10,000 population respectively).

The findings indicate that state and federal regulatory policies may not protect the health of populations living near oil and gas facilities. In particular, the risk of negative health effects is significant even at the 500-foot setback between newly-drilled oil and gas wells and existing homes, as required by Colorado’s current regulations.

“The study provides further evidence that people living close to oil and gas facilities are at the greatest risk of acute and chronic health issues due to air pollutants emitted by those facilities,” said Pam Milmoe, Boulder County Public Health Air Quality Program Coordinator. “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.”

The study considered more factors than what previous health risk studies included, such as short-term, repeated nighttime peaks, when levels can be higher due to temperature inversions, and childhood exposures. It also incorporated the most recent benzene health information and cites Boulder County’s 2017 analysis of data collected with the aid of an infrared camera that detected gas leaks at 65% of the 145 oil and gas sites inspected in Boulder County.

“The results of this health study should support additional emission controls on wellsite equipment, and stronger leak detection and repair requirements statewide, just as we used the gas leak data to support stronger regulations recently adopted by the state Air Quality Control Commission,” said Milmoe.

“We have always been, and certainly with release of this study, are increasingly concerned about the health risks associated with oil and gas development in such close proximity to residential areas,” said Deb Gardner, Boulder County Commissioner. “A 500 foot setback, as required by current Colorado law, is clearly not adequate to protect the health and safety of our residents. This study demonstrates the need for immediate action by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state legislature, and the courts to safeguard the lives of Colorado residents against the devastating health effects of oil and gas development near businesses, homes, and schools.”

See the press release from the University of Colorado.

The study is available at https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.7b05983.

For more information about Boulder County’s work in response to oil and gas development, visit the Oil & Gas Development webpage.