Friday, May 23, 2014

Family says drilling caused health problems

Those living near gas wells
say their health suffers.
Arguments are heating up in western Colorado and other areas over questions about human-health impacts from the region’s oil-and-gas industry.

In Texas, a jury recently awarded nearly $3 million to a family in Decatur, Texas, about 60 miles northwest of Dallas, over the family’s claims that nearby natural-gas extraction activities were making them sick.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, a Roaring Fork Valley doctor has conducted blood and urine tests on a family in Silt who also claim to have been made sick by nearby oil and gas activities.

In addition, Dr. John Hughes, of the Aspen Integrative Medicine group, who conducted the tests on the Silt family, confirmed on Thursday that testing is to be expanded and that he is seeking volunteers from among those living near natural-gas facilities in western Garfield County.

The oil-and-gas industry has long disputed claims that its activities make its residential neighbors sick, pointing to a lack of documentary proof of any such illnesses among those living near gas-drilling facilities.

And in Garfield County, air-quality-monitoring programs detected no violations of federal air-quality standards in 2013 other than “a slight increase in the amount of benzene detected in the air” compared with previous years, according to an April 21 article in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

Still, the Colorado Health Department in February issued new rules for statewide regulation of air pollution by the oil-and-gas industry, and an array of those living near the industry’s wells and other facilities continue to maintain that their air is being fouled by industry activities.

Peggy Tibbetts, of Silt, along with her daughter, Ema, and 12-year-old granddaughter, Hailey, had their blood and urine tested in early April by a nurse working for Hughes.

The testing was done at the family’s expense, Tibbetts noted, saying it was an expensive process undertaken only after the family started showing symptoms that included upper respiratory infections, swollen glands, sore throat, congestion, coughing, sneezing, earaches, shortness of breath and itchy, watery, burning eyes.

The results of those tests have indicated that the family has been contaminated by what are known as volatile organic compounds, substances that are commonly associated with oil- and gas-extraction activities, according to data made available to Aspen Journalism by Hughes’ office.

VOCs in the blood

The samples were sent for analysis to a lab at Colorado State University, which detected the presence of volatile organic compounds — ethylbenzene and zylene — in the blood samples, Hughes reported.

The lab also detected metabolites — chemicals left over by the human body’s metabolic processes — of several volatile organic compounds in the urine samples.

The metabolites, according to the results sent to Hughes, indicated that the patients had been exposed to benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, which together make up the BTEX group of volatile organic compounds, which often are associated with natural-gas activities and some of which are known to cause illness in humans.

Studies have concluded that exposure to certain BTEX compounds can result in skin and sensory irritation, depression of the central nervous system and effects on the respiratory system. Prolonged exposure to these compounds, researchers say, also can harm the kidney, liver and blood systems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is sufficient evidence from both human epidemiological and animal studies that benzene is a human carcinogen. Workers exposed to high levels of benzene in occupational settings were found to have an increase in leukemia.

The family of Bill and Beth Strudley, who formerly lived on Silt Mesa, in 2010 began becoming ill, experiencing nosebleeds, skin rashes and other ailments.

They blamed their health problems on nearby natural-gas-drilling activity and have filed a lawsuit against the Antero Resources energy company that currently is before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Upon hearing about the Texas jury award, Tibbetts remarked, “It’s great news.”

Industry representatives have maintained that the facts of the case, which was filed as a “nuisance” suit under specific state laws, did not warrant the award, and Aruba Petroleum is likely to appeal.

According to the Law360 website, industry legal experts are worried that, even if the jury’s award is overturned on appeal, the jury’s findings could “give encouragement to plaintiffs considering bringing suit” over similar circumstances as those in Decatur.

Source: Aspen Times. The article has been edited for length.

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