Expert questions gas-drilling chemicals
Analyst says endocrine glands at risk
by Dale Rodebaugh
Herald Staff Writer
Article Last Updated; Monday, June 29, 2009
The toxic chemicals used to extract natural gas from deep underground and process it are among substances creating a dizzying list of embryonic - and subsequent - developmental aberrations in animals, including humans, an environmental health analyst is set to say tonight.
Theo Colborn, founder of Paonia-based The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, or TEDX, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. at the Center of Southwest Studies lyceum. The presentation is titled "What You Need to Know About Natural Gas Production: Made Easy." Colborn holds degrees in pharmacy, fresh-water ecology and zoology, and minors in epidemiology, toxicology and water chemistry.
Theo Colborn, the founder of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, will speak at 7 p.m. in the lyceum (Room 120), at Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.
"I'll be talking about what we know about the chemicals used in drilling for and production of natural gas," Colborn said by telephone from Paonia. "I won't talk about exposure, but I'll explain what we know about the health effects from the chemicals."
A Durango nurse was sickened in July 2008 after she treated a gas-field employee who had cleaned a chemical spill near Bayfield. Bayfield is in the San Juan Basin, which includes much of the southern part of La Plata County, and is one of the largest gas fields in the country.
The public is dealing with an unknown - the composition of the substances used in the production of natural gas - Colborn said.
"The problem is non-disclosure on the part of the industry. They're not telling us everything," Colborn said. "We have limited information."
A modicum of accountability exists. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last year imposed new rules on the industry, including one that requires companies to disclose to state regulators what chemicals they use.
But technical studies abound on the chemical causes of certain health effects, Colborn said. TEDX compiled a list of 246 products containing 278 chemicals used in natural-gas operations in Colorado. The source list includes environmental impact statements, rule-making documents, accident and spill reports, the State Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act and material data safety sheets. Data safety sheets tell those who ship and use products about their physical and chemical characteristics.
"Colborn's talk is relevant to what goes on in La Plata County," said Josh Joswick, who coordinates gas, oil and energy issues at the San Juan Citizens Alliance. "A guy from Halliburton (an oilfield services company) spoke here May 14. He talked about how benign the chemicals used in natural-gas production are."
It's time to hear a credible, opposing view, Joswick said.
Christi Zeller with the La Plata County Energy Council, a nonprofit trade organization, said the industry is highly regulated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Bureau of Land Management.
"We have the most extensive water-well sampling in the state," Zeller said. "We test wells through the life of the well. Not a single one has ever been impacted by fracing (the injection of liquids to fracture rocks to free gas)."
As for chemicals, Zeller said, "You need to name the chemical, determine its effects and explore the point and route of exposure. Let's get a certified toxicologist here. Our biggest fear is that the community will be alarmed by such reports."
Colborn, who established TEDX in 2002, testified June 9 before the U.S. House subcommittee on insular affairs, oceans and wildlife. She addressed the panel on endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment that affect wildlife and humans. The endocrine system is the network of glands (pituitary, adrenal, thyroid, thymus, ovary and testes) that release hormones that regulate fetal development, growth, metabolism and tissue function.
A U.S.-Canadian commission in 1990 found that chemical-safety tests were failing to protect people, Colborn told committee members. Six years later, Congress told the Environmental Protection Agency it had "failed miserably" to detect endocrine disruptors. Today, Colborn said, the developed world is confronting a "pandemic of endocrine-related disorders, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, diabetes, obesity, childhood cancer, testicular cancer in young men and infertility."
The existence of industrial chemicals, many considered proprietary, weren't commonly known until they were found in the environment, Colborn said. Companies that extract natural gas use proprietary fluids laced with endocrine-disrupting chemicals - with little or no oversight - as if they were perfectly safe.