Oil industry group disputes fracking health study findings

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association is disputing a new study that suggests that chemicals known to harm human reproduction in the Colorado River are tied to hydraulic fracturing.

Doug Flanders, COGA’s director of policy and external affairs, issued a statement this week calling the study’s link between drilling and chemicals known as endocrine disruptors “short sighted.”

“The Colorado River is a drainage basin for almost half of western Colorado,” reads the statement. “To correlate the (endocrine disrupting chemical) levels in the river to oil and gas drilling is extreme cherry-picking from a number of sources that are known to contain (endocrine disrupting chemicals).”

The study from researchers with the University of Missouri at Columbia and the U.S. Geological Survey who collected water samples from the Colorado River and water wells near oil and gas development in Garfield County found chemical activity linked to cell destruction. The study is published in the journal Endocrinology.

The data suggests that natural-gas drilling operations that employed hydraulic fracturing may lead to elevated endocrine disrupting chemical activity in nearby surface and groundwater, the study states. Exposure to these kinds of chemicals can lead to decreased fertility, increased cancer incidence and impaired reproductive health, according to the study.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses such endocrine disrupting chemicals, according to the study. Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water containing sand and chemicals at high pressure to release oil and natural gas from dense shale formations.

The study marks the first time that scientists have published a correlation between natural-gas drilling and a stronger presence of endocrine disrupting chemical activity, said Susan Nagel, associate professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at the University of Missouri. Researchers collected water samples primarily in 2010 near the Colorado River at sites where spills from oil and gas development had occurred. Most municipal treatment plants are not designed to remove such chemicals from drinking water, she said.

“Spills are one route of potential contamination of water and spills happen,” Nagel said. “If spills happen and endocrine disrupting activity is being contributed to water, I think that is relevant.”

She noted that though the study found higher levels of the endocrine disruptors in waters near fracking sites, more research is required to determine whether fracking is causing more of the chemicals to appear in the water supply. Nagel is conducting additional testing on the Western Slope as part of a new, more comprehensive study, she said.

The researchers collected control water samples in Boone County, Missouri, an area with no natural-gas drilling, and found lower levels of endocrine disrupting chemical activity.

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association argues that the region in Missouri has a different geology, topography and environment.

“Additionally, authors of the study are unsure of the exact source of the (endocrine disrupting chemicals) and even acknowledge that the chemicals could come from a host of other sources besides fracking,” the industry group’s statement reads.

Naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals could contribute to the activity observed in water samples collected by scientists, according to the study. Researchers noted, however, that they collected samples in areas without recent agricultural activity and wastewater contamination that could have led to additional endocrine disrupting chemical activity.

The researchers also contend that water samples taken in the more urban Boone County lend further support for a link between fracking and chemical activity in water.

“The more urban samples were found to exhibit the lowest levels of hormonal activity in the current study,” the study states.

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