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Researchers Warn Health Dangers May Lurk Near Oil And Gas Wells

In places like Thornton, Colo., oil and gas facilities sit within a few hundred feet of suburban homes.
Christopher Cleary
In places like Thornton, Colo., oil and gas facilities sit within a few hundred feet of suburban homes.

States like Colorado and Wyoming require that new oil and gas wells be built at least 500 feet away from existing homes. But new research shows that might not be far enough away to protect people’s health.

Scientists took air samples from multiple sites in Northern Colorado at various distances from oil and gas wells. They looked at what chemicals were inside those samples and in what concentrations. Then, they estimated what breathing those levels of pollutants might do to a person’s health over an hour or over a few decades.

“Some of their health effects might occur almost right away, things like headaches,” says Lisa McKenzie, an environmental epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health. "Other effects might be more long-term like the lifetime excess cancer risk."

She led the study, which came out in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The researchers found that the closer people get to oil and gas wells, the higher their chances are of getting exposed to nasty pollutants that can cause everything from headaches to cancer – even 500 feet away.

“And these exposures are at levels that could impact health and pose lifetime excess cancer risks above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable,” she says.

Under ordinary conditions, everyone has about a 30 to 40 percent chance of getting cancer at some point in their lives. Exposure to the air pollutants in this study might add just a sliver of a percent to that chance – something like 0.08 percent.

But, McKenzie says, “It’s still an addition, and if you happen to be that addition that’s important.”

Many states now have laws preventing new oil and gas wells from being built within a certain distance of existing homes, but they vary dramatically. Montana has no law about distance – it all happens on a case-by-case basis.  Wyoming and Colorado require a minimum of 500 feet from existing homes. Idaho’s requirement is shorter – 300 feet, but with some exceptions. In Utah, it varies by county.

2017 study by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment analyzed air samples around oil and gas operations and concluded that "the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living at distances of 500 feet or more from oil and gas operations."

"So far, we have not found any elevated short- or long-term risks from the same substances evaluated in the McKenzie study," said  Dr. Larry Wolk, the department's chief medical officer, in  a statement

Dan Haley,  president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, called the study "inflammatory."  Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, part of the American Petroleum Institute, called McKenzie’s work "activist research that seeks to generate soundbite headlines from unvalidated conclusions."

But McKenzie argues that there are, in fact, people living within 500 feet of oil and gas facilities built before Colorado started its setback rule. And while oil and gas operations might not be allowed to build within a certain distance of existing homes, states tend not to have laws for the reverse situation: building new housing close to existing oil and gas wells.

“We have this intersection of our growth in housing due to our very quickly growing population at the same time that we’re having this rapid increase in the development of oil and gas resources along the Front Range,” says McKenzie, and that could mean more people across the region are exposed to polluted air that could sicken them. 

The researchers now hope to monitor air pollutants inside of homes at various distances from oil and gas facilities.

Editor's Note: We corrected the additional risk of cancer from living near oil and gas facilities to 0.08 percent. In the original story, it was reported as 0.008.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2020 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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