Is oil drilling making people sick?
Vail CO, Colorado
RIFLE ” Linking human ailments to air pollution isn’t easy, but state health officials want to hear from people who are having problems.
“We may not have the perfect answer around cause and effect, but we do want to respond and address that,” Mark McMillan, an environmental health scientist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told listeners in Rifle last week.
McMillan was speaking at Colorado Mountain College’s new West Garfield Campus in the second of a two-part air quality education presentation put on by the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board, Garfield County Environmental Health and CMC.
Much of his presentation focused on what he admitted is the inexact science of assessing health risks and deciding what to do about them. Factors such as toxicity, exposure and susceptibility all must be taken into consideration. And air pollutant sources are numerous. Between McMillan and audience members, they identified oil and gas operations, cars, coal-fired power plants, asphalt plants, wood stoves, indoor pollutants, cigarettes, hobbies and blowing dust as being just some of the culprits.
Benzene, a cancer-causing pollutant of concern in connection with natural gas development in Garfield County, “is a pollutant that really is everywhere. It’s in thousands of processes,” McMillan said. He said he was surprised when he first learned that one of the primary routes of exposure to benzene occurs when people put gasoline in their cars.
“It was a reminder that these issues are everywhere,” he said.
McMillan said health officials evaluate the dangers of toxins in two different ways. For carcinogens, they consider the degree to which a substance increases the probability of getting cancer during a lifetime of exposure. For other toxicants, they look at how much exposure levels are above levels that are assumed to be insignificant.
Some of McMillan’s listeners were worried about whether health officials are willing to look into anecdotal evidence of people becoming ill from air pollutants, such as pollutants resulting from gas drilling.
“Cause and effect is very, very challenging,” McMillan said.
However, he said he thinks part of the reason he was invited to speak in Rifle was because of the local concerns over air pollution.
McMillan said it’s important for the public to be involved in air quality management, including being the “eyes and ears” for state health officials, to make them aware of possible problems.
“I love my job, but there’s only so much I can do and see from my office in Denver,” he said.
He said the state health department will respond to inquiries and complaints from the public, and public input carries weight in developing rules for air quality management.
County health officials hope to be able to provide residents with more information about local air quality soon when they release the results of a testing program.
However, some who heard McMillan speak Thursday worry about that testing’s focus on western Garfield County. Steve Hessl and Richard Heinz are members of Carbondale’s environmental board, and worry about air pollution from sources such as ditch burning and traffic in that town. They note that the county’s air quality testing doesn’t include Carbondale.
Liz Chandler, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said she thinks McMillan’s presentation will help her in understanding the results of the county study. A chief concern for her is people living near natural gas development who are exposed to substances such as benzene, at concentrations that may not be considered harmful over short time periods but she fears could harm them over weeks or months of exposure.
“I have concerns for what happens to them long-term,” she said.
Chandler takes issue with claims that there is no proof of gas development generating toxicants that cause long-term health issues.
“My answer is the absence of proof is not the proof of absence,” she said.