Is fracking making people sick?

ERIE – After more than two years, Wendy Leonard finally gave up on Erie and moved to Louisville. Erie, she says, made her family sick, because of all of the natural-gas drilling in and around the town.

The mother of four children, Leonard knows she can’t confirm that her family’s health problems are linked to the drilling.

“Until we have a health impact study to prove one way or the other, we don’t know,” Leonard said. “But I think there’s something going on.”

Leonard is one of a growing number of Coloradoans who live near oil and gas wells and contend they have suffered from headaches, bloody noses, stomach pain and nausea.

Such complaints have cropped up on occasion over the years, but have intensified along the Front Range and elsewhere in the state with spread of hydraulic fracturing, a contentious technique that involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into a drilled hole to free oil and gas trapped deep below ground.

The oil and gas industry says these reports of health problems are part of a mass hysteria that it contends has swept the nation.

Indeed, no study has been done that offers any clear evidence supporting the notion that fracturing is making people sick.

Could it be, as the industry suggests, that these illnesses are nothing more than “psychogenic” — think of the 2011 case of a group of 20 inexplicably twitching cheerleaders in Le Roy, N.Y. Or, is the phenomenon similar to people’s claims in Scituate, Mass., that the hums and vibrations from nearby wind farms cause headaches, insomnia and nausea?

Such incidents typically have nothing to do with industrial activity, according to independent experts. Still, no one has adequately explained why reports of illnesses among people who live in areas surrounding oil and gas operations continue to surface.

Sick in Erie

In Erie, residents have contended with a sharp increase in oil and gas drilling since the middle of last decade. More than 180 wells produce oil and gas in a town with a population of 18,000.

Leonard moved from Virginia to Erie two-and-a-half years ago. Her children, ages 2, 4, 5 and 8, started getting sick to their stomachs before she knew about oil and gas development in the area.

Leonard, who has three boys and a girl, said her daughter came down with the worst stomach pains. She took her to see a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, who did tests that showed nothing wrong.

But problems continued. One of her sons began coming home from Red Hawk Elementary with stomach pain, prompting conversations with the school nurse.

“She said she was new to that school,” Leonard said. “She said that she had never worked at an elementary school where so many children come to the nurse’s office with (gastrointestinal) complaints.”

Other Erie mothers she talked with said their families had similar problems.

At first, Leonard thought stress from the move had caused her children’s health problems. She later found out that 21 wells operated within a half-mile of her home.

“When I found out that was going on, it definitely could be a side effect of living close to an oil and gas wellpad,´ said Leonard.

Once the family moved, her children’s health improved within a week, she said.

Symptoms in Northern Colorado

April Beach, a 36-year-old homemaker, and her husband bought their first home in the Erie neighborhood of Grandview in 2002. Today, 34 wells lie within a half-mile of their second home in the same neighborhood.

By 2005, Beach, who owns a parental consulting business, said she had developed “unexplained” pains, dizziness, short-term memory loss, headaches and problems concentrating. She was diagnosed with a lesion in her spinal cord.

She did not know at the time a pit used to evaporate wastewater, and the chemicals in it from drilling, lay within a few hundred yards from her home.

“It was always really greasy and nasty-looking,´ said Beach, who has three boys, ages 6, 8 and 10. “Obviously, none of our kids ever played in it.”

Her symptoms worsened when a new well was hydraulically fractured in her neighborhood in 2010. She continues to feel unwell from the spinal lesion and she undergoes annual checkups to monitor her condition.

Everyone in her family developed heartburn and stomach pains, she said. Her boys suffered from frequent “gushing” bloody noses, even hair loss.

One of her boys went to Children’s Hospital for his stomach problems. Another one of her boys developed asthma after workers installed a device on the well meant to burn off escaping pollution, Beach said. Her husband’s childhood asthma returned.

Yet another well was drilled; Beach’s symptoms worsened, and she began feeling asthmatic. She took narcotics for pain.

“Nobody could ever figure anything out,” she said. “I’m not a health expert. Every time, every doctor I go to and I mention we live next to a well, they don’t know anything about it either.”

She learned after talking to other Erie residents that they shared similar symptoms, she said.

Like the Leonards, the Beaches are leaving Erie. They plan to temporarily move elsewhere in town, away from gas wells, but they have not been able to sell their home. They want to eventually move to Boulder.

Beach said she asked a representative of Encana, which drills natural-gas wells in and around Erie, whether the company investigates people’s claims about health problems. The representative told her no.

Problems on the Western Slope

Thomas Thompson, who lives near Rifle with his wife, George, said that his health problems began after Encana began drilling near his home 11 years ago.

“They have turned our lives upside-down,´ said Thompson, 65.

Thompson, a retired health-insurance consultant for hospitals and physicians groups, had built a home in a picturesque box canyon two years earlier. The Thompsons enjoyed entertaining at afternoon barbeques and parties — until Encana drilled multiple wells nearby.

“We don’t invite people anymore because we feel bad about making them sick,” Thompson said.

He recently gave a tour of his property and the adjacent gas wells to a group of 35 people, including representatives of media and advocacy groups. Fourteen left the tour early with headaches and nausea, he said.

Pollution from wells in the area as well as dust from constant truck traffic on the road next to his home have led to nearly daily nose bleeds for Thompson, “blinding” headaches and coughing fits that make him wretch blood, he said.

Thompson knows he must move to preserve his health, but he doesn’t think he could sell his home, he said. Some days, fumes from wells keep him shut all day in his home.

“I cough so hard I break blood vessels in my eyes,” he said. “You want to buy my house knowing the conditions that we live in here?”

“It’s like living next door to a toxic-waste dump,” he added.

Thompson earlier this month testified before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission about his health, along with other people who live near wells statewide. The Colorado Oil & Gas Association tried to quash the testimony in a motion arguing that opinions of people who lived near wells were not based on science.

The oil and gas commission denied the industry lobbying group’s motion and, after several months of study and three days of hearings, passed stricter regulations on groundwater monitoring and new minimum-distance rules between residential and commercial buildings and drilling activity.

Industry response

The industry rejects the notion that hydraulic fracturing has harmed health.

If Encana were presented with scientific data showing a link between gas drilling and health problems, “We would take that very seriously,” company spokesman Doug Hock said.

“We can’t respond to things based on anecdote,” he said. “We shouldn’t make public policy based on anecdotes, either.”

Encana, he added, would investigate some health claims, such as one related to a spill.

“If someone came to us with a medical report that showed a direct cause or link, that’s something we would look at very seriously,” he said.

So far, public health department officials in Weld and Boulder counties say they have not received any reports from doctors blaming their patients’ health problems on drilling.

But public health officials are concerned about oil and gas pollution.

“We do know that there are emissions from oil and gas operations that can cause lung damage and cause difficulty breathing,´ said Pam Milmoe, the Boulder County health department’s air quality and business sustainability coordinator.

The Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, meanwhile, says it receives a few complaints every year.

Weld officials typically visit a well site when they receive such complaints, said Trevor Jiricek, Weld director of environmental health. Officials recommend that people contact their doctor to get testing done, and Weld Public Health forwards complaints to the state oil and gas commission.

Still, the public health department has not heard of any link between drilling and health problems, Jiricek said.

Dr. Laird Cagan, a Longmont internal-medicine specialist, explained that breathing methane, which scientists have detected in greater quantities in Erie air than in traditionally smoggy places such as Houston and Pasadena, Calif., can cause respiratory problems. Methane-laced water can cause headaches and stomach illnesses, as well.

Cagan cannot say that he has seen any patients who believed their problems were tied to drilling, and he acknowledges that he’s no expert. But he thinks until more is known, fracturing shouldn’t take place near where people live.

“It should be studied more before we allow it to potentially harm our citizens,” Cagan said.

A new study in the works

One study released last year, conducted by the University of Colorado School of Public Health, drew withering criticism from industry – as well as the state of Colorado.

Researchers had found that residents living closer to wells have a greater risk of getting cancer from emissions caused by natural-gas development. They also found that these people have a greater risk of suffering from eye irritation, sore throat, headaches and difficulty breathing.

But the study was found to contain “major uncertainties due to a lack of critical information,” according to a report by the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

The state oil and gas commission, with help from CSU researchers, is now planning to study the question of whether drilling has an impact on people’s health more closely.

Coloradans will have to wait years before they get any solid information: The health-risk assessment phase of the study won’t begin until January 2016.

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