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Drilling For Answers on the Link Between Health and Fracking

KUNC File Photo

Despite a lack of studies supporting their claims, some people living near oil and natural gas wells in Northern Colorado say the practice of hydraulic fracturing has caused them health problems. Northern Colorado Business Report publisher Jeff Nuttall says their newsroom is receiving anecdotal reports from people who live near wells. People in Erie and other regions where drilling has expanded in recent years are complaining of a range of issues including headaches, nosebleeds, stomach pain and nausea.

Public health experts say more studies are needed to determine if there is a link between drilling and health. Researchers with the Colorado School of Public Health have suggested future studies focus on health effects from air pollution associated with drilling.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently approved new rules increasing the distance that wells must be from homes or schools, and requiring more stringent testing of groundwater.

Along with researchers from Colorado State University, the COGCC is planning to study whether pollution from drilling creates health problems -- but the results won't be known for several years.

Interview highlights:

What is causing these health problems?

"The short answer is we don’t really know. People who live near wells blame hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep below ground to free oil and gas. These people say doctors who have examined them don’t know what has caused their illnesses. And public health officials say they haven’t received any reports from doctors indicating that oil and gas is the culprit."

What are health experts saying?

"They are concerned about emissions from oil and gas wells causing illness. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the oil business is the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds, a group of chemicals that contribute to the formation of smog. Ozone exposure is linked to a wide range of health effects, including asthma, increased ER visits and hospital admissions and even premature death."

How is the oil and gas industry responding?

"The oil and gas industry has attributed these health problems to a mass hysteria that it says has swept the nation. Industry representatives point out that the claims are anecdotal. No study has been done that offers any clear evidence supporting the notion that fracturing is making people sick.

A representative of an oil and gas company that drills in Erie told us that the company takes health claims seriously and would respond to any medical reports or scientific data showing a direct link between illness and health. But he said the company would not respond to anecdotal accounts."

What’s being done to determine if fracking might play a role in these illnesses?

"The state oil and gas commission, with help from CSU researchers, does plan to study whether Front Range oil and gas pollution affects health. But we will have to wait years before we get any good information: The health-risk assessment phase of the study won’t begin until January 2016."

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