Colorado Report on Birth Anomalies Near Fracking Sites Omits Key Factors

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Oil flare stack

Last month, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment announced it would investigate a spike in rare fetal anomalies reported in Garfield County, the second most heavily-drilled and fracked county in the state.

The newly released report, which the department quietly put on its website without public announcement, does little to address fears about the safety of drilling and fracking in Colorado's communities.

The report says that overall, the department found no single predominant risk factor common among the majority of women studied. 

The agency studied about a dozen risk factors, most of which focused on the mothers' personal characteristics and behavior, such as ethnicity; alcohol, tobacco and drug use; use of medications, vitamins and supplements; and family history.

But the report has glaring gaps in what the state examined, and what it didn't.

Questions remain about air and water quality

For 22 reported fetal abnormalities, the department says it mapped the maternal residences, compared them to the locations of active oil and gas wells and found that 70 percent of the mothers lived at least 15 miles from an active well, and the remaining 30 percent were five to eight miles from the nearest active well.

The report did not consider distances from storage facilities, pipelines or older wells, and assumes these distances from active wells are adequate to assure public health and safety — yet no research has been done to determine what constitutes a safe distance for dwellings from drilling and fracking operations. The report also didn't make any effort to determine the presence or absence of fracking chemicals, or chemical byproducts of drilling, in the air or water in the homes of the subjects studied for the report. 

The agency reports that “the majority of the cohort did not live near and [sic] active oil and gas well and none of the drinking water sources presented with any exceeded levels of disinfection by-products…” 

It seems, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment only considered levels of disinfection by-products in water, without considering any other chemical contaminants. 

In 13 percent of the cases studied, the mothers used local well water as their domestic water source, and the rest used municipal water sources. Curiously, the department did not analyze any of the mothers' water sources for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylenes. Indeed, the report makes no mention whatsoever of VOCknown to be released during drilling and fracking and to have effects on fetal development.

It's a glaring oversight given that scientists affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have just determined that oil and gas operations on Colorado's front range are pumping almost seven times more benzene into the air than previously estimated.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment knows Coloradans are highly concerned about the effects of drilling and fracking on their air, water and environment. The department's failure to take into consideration so many known air and water quality factors associated with drilling and fracking while compiling this report raises far more questions than it answers. 

Photo: Oil flare stack by Adam Cohn via Flickr

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