Fact Check: Do people living within a half-mile of oil and gas development suffer grave health risks?
Claim: In a story about supporters turning in signatures for Initiative 97 to require a 2,500-foot setback for oil and gas developers, the reporter quotes volunteer Suzanne Spiegel of Boulder as saying, “We need to protect the health and safety of Coloradans. The state isn’t doing that and people are getting sick.”
Rather than asking who is actually getting sick or in any way substantiating that claim, the reporter goes on to quote Spiegel as saying the 2,500-foot setback was chosen based on a Colorado study that showed the gravest health impacts occur within a half-mile of oil and gas development. The reporter does not cite or link to any study nor does she reach out to the state health department or another expert to determine the veracity of the statement.
Fact: EAP has published the facts on this claim repeatedly over the past few weeks. Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) published the results of its research into the health impacts of oil and gas development, finding the risk of harmful effects “is low for Coloradans living near oil and gas operations.” CDPHE evaluated health risks from certain substances emitted from oil and gas operations and reviewed other studies of health effects possibly associated with living near oil and gas operations.
In 2016, CDPHE looked at Weld County, which produces 90 percent of the state’s oil. It found that Weld County does not have significantly more, and in many cases, it has fewer, instances of asthma, cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and low birth weights than other Front Range counties. This shows “there's no reason to believe that there is a causal relationship between oil and gas operations and chronic diseases or cancers," said Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s chief medical officer and executive director.
Spiegel’s statements likely refer to studies conducted by Lisa McKenzie, a researcher whose work is frequently cited by anti-fracking activists despite those studies being both criticized by the state health department and downplayed by McKenzie herself.
In 2012, McKenzie released a highly-criticized study purportedly showing that people who live within a half-mile of natural gas wells may have an increased lifetime cancer risk. The study exaggerated emissions from well development by at least 10 times, failed to take into account exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than a mile away, and failed to note the cancer risk detected was not above the national average. McKenzie conceded the study’s flaws, noting some of the same concerns raised by her critics.
McKenzie released another study in 2014 finding a possible connection between congenital heart defects and proximity to an oil and gas wells. Wolk criticized the study, saying that readers “could easily be misled to become overly concerned,” that the "rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities," and that the study ignored many factors besides natural gas development.
Last year, McKenzie released a study trying to link oil and natural gas development to childhood leukemia. CDPHE again criticized the study’s design and data analysis and said the possible link between childhood cancer and high-concentration oil and gas development relied upon only 16 cases.
The “study’s conclusions are misleading in that the study questions a possible association between oil and gas operations and childhood leukemia; it does not prove or establish such a connection,” Wolk said. McKenzie conceded these flaws, stating the study does “not provide enough evidence to say that living near oil and gas wells causes leukemia.”
Rating: Out of gas