Unconventional oil and gas (O&G) extraction is rapidly expanding in Colorado in close proximity to high-density residential areas. For example, there are approximately 54,000 active wells in Colorado, and more than 50% of these are in counties that also have some of the highest rates of population growth in the nation.
In 2014, the Colorado Oil and Gas Task Force developed a set of recommendations to help foster responsible development of oil and gas in Colorado. As part of its assessment, the Task Force stated that it “heard from many citizens who expressed concern and uncertainty about potential human health risks associated with exposure to emissions from oil and gas activities. The Task Force believes citizens deserve and need accurate, credible, peer-reviewed scientific information to help them evaluate risk” (Task Force Final Report, 2015).
To address these citizen concerns, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment established an intra-departmental program between the environmental and health divisions called the Oil and Gas Health Information and Response (OGHIR) Program. This brought together departmental experts in oil and gas operations, air quality measurement, exposure assessment, toxicology, environmental medicine, and health communication. The program established the following goals: (1) provide rapid response to citizen and local government health concerns; (2) monitor and analyze the geographical and temporal trends of health concerns; (3) utilize state-of-the-art air quality measurement and risk assessment methods to assess citizen concerns; and (4) effectively communicate investigation findings and other objective scientific information about the potential health risks associated with O&G emissions to citizens and policymakers. In order to better characterize emissions and exposures, the program designed and commissioned a mobile air quality monitoring laboratory with capabilities to measure near real-time concentrations of a large number of volatile organic compounds, criteria pollutants, and other potential emissions from O&G. OGHIR is one of the first programs in the nation to provide a centralized, state level program solely focused on tracking detailed information about citizen health concerns and investigating these concerns through community-level air quality monitoring for use in health risk assessments.
OGHIR has successfully developed relationships and work processes with oil and gas regulators, local health departments, and other government representatives to provide a coordinated and efficient response to citizen health concerns. OGHIR has also developed a tiered approach to efficiently collect air quality data to assess potential health risk. The first tier assessment includes site visits by staff to citizen’s houses and neighborhoods, partnering with citizens to collect symptoms and odors using online logs and short-term air samples during times when they experience strong odors and/or symptoms. Based on the results of the initial screening or the volume of health concerns reported, the mobile air quality monitoring laboratory may be deployed to conduct longer term or more detailed testing. All of these data are analyzed to provide citizens and stakeholders with an understandable report detailing potential health risks.
Results to Date:
- Since fall 2015, more than 300 health concerns have been reported to OGHIR. All of these have been responded to within one business day by health professionals.
- Sixty percent of these health concerns have resulted in the collection of community air quality samples or deployment of the mobile air quality monitoring laboratory and a resulting health risk evaluation report.
- The program published a comprehensive risk assessment covering the years 2008-2015 and outlining the potential health risks for residents living near O&G operations in Colorado.
- The program published a systematic literature review of published epidemiological studies evaluating the potential health effects for populations living near O&G operations.
- The program has provided outreach and education to more than 30 citizen or policymaker groups about the potential health risks associated with O&G emissions.
For more information about the program, visit www.colorado.gov/oghealth