Sun March 20, 2011

There’s More to Environment than just Air and Water

Environmental dangers are everywhere. But KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel says they sometimes have nothing to do with the air we breathe or the water that we drink.

Since November I’ve been working at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. One of the best parts of the route I travel from my home in Greeley to the medical center in Aurora is along a country road that runs about 20 miles from Kersey to just west of Keensburg.

Thanks to the boom in natural gas production in our north Colorado neighborhood, the thoroughfare is frequently laden with all sorts of heavy equipment used to exploit the hydrocarbon riches that lie below.

I just figured out that some neat lines of dozens of truck-size metal boxes that I see from the road are filled with “fracking fluid,” a substance pumped into the ground to pry open cracks in gas field rocks, encouraging more of the product to flow to the well-head and be collected. 

Thanks to directional drilling and new fracking techniques, these days the Niobrara Formation, which lies below much of North Colorado, as well as contiguous parts of Nebraska and Wyoming, has been a hotbed of activity and profit.

Natural gas is a great energy source. As we speak, the process of converting from coal to natural gas lurches forward in our beautiful state as the energy companies, the Public Utilities Commission, and environmentalists duke it out.

In the meantime, there’s the big question of what these new drilling techniques and proprietary (therefore secret) injected substances are doing to our water.  Are we trading cleaner air for dirtier water?  And what are the possible consequences to people’s health?

If you’re expecting me to answer that question here, you may as well change the station.  I just don’t know.  There are huge amounts of geologic data to consider as well as a non-trivial quantity of unknowns.  Nevertheless, as a local health professional I’ve done my best to inform myself about this matter that could have a huge impact on the wellbeing of my neighbors and me. Here’s what I’ve found.

A study published in 2008 about the possible effects of the petroleum industry on the citizens of Garfield County, provided me with some pretty interesting fuel (that is, data) for this fire.  That county includes Battlement Mesa, Carbondale, Newcastle, Parachute, and Rifle, names associated with more than one turn of the boom-bust cycle of hydrocarbon riches.

The scientists analyzed all sorts of health data for the communities in question, comparing them to citizens in neighboring counties.  Keep in mind that this report was designed to take a snapshot of a moment in time in the health of these citizens, rather than to follow them for the decades it might take for diseases possibly associated with the petroleum industry to manifest. Here’s what they found. 

At the time of the study there was no health problem that appeared to result from the gas and oil harvesting business.  In the short term anyway, people appeared to be no less healthy if petroleum exploration was going on in their midst…with one glaring exception, venereal disease.  Chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV (AIDS virus) infection all increased significantly in zip codes where oil and gas exploration were going on when compared to places where it wasn’t.  It seems that the biggest impact petroleum exploration brings to the health of boomtown citizens is carried by the influx of workers who, in the process of exploiting subterranean resources, wind up exploiting some townsfolk too.

Public health researchers have shown time and again that rapid economic change, up or down, carries consequences for the health of the population.  When it comes to gauging impacts on people, “environment” means much more than just air and water.

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