EDITORIAL: Beware of fake fracking cancer scare
Be skeptical of a recent "study" that links cancer with living near fracking wells.
Anti-energy activists claim the state's 500-foot setback inadequately buffers homes from active oil and gas wells. They want bans, moratoriums and extreme setbacks, all in conflict with state and federal laws protecting property rights. Blaming energy production for cancer gives their crusade a perceived moral basis and political momentum.
"Does living near an oil and gas well increase your risk of cancer? A new Colorado Study says yes"
So declared an April 9 Denver Post headline about research headed by Lisa McKenzie, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The National Science Foundation, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and the Boulder County Public Health Department funded McKenzie's study.
"The results underscore the importance of not locating existing facilities near homes, schools and recreation areas, and having policies that require effective monitoring and reducing emissions from oil and gas facilities, for sites already in those areas," said Pam Milmoe, coordinator of the Boulder County Public Health air quality program.
Milmoe works for Boulder County Commissioners, who are dedicated to prohibiting fracking.
McKenzie's findings don't add up. Though the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment funded the study, the results contradict the agency's findings in 2017. That study monitored air quality near thousands of fracking wells and found no elevated levels of toxins.
The agency's Executive Director, Dr. Larry Wolk, issued a statement questioning McKenzie's findings. He explained the study's only disturbing results came from air measurements taken within the state's 500-foot setback. Wolk questioned the results of another study McKenzie led last year, in which she claimed children diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia were more likely to live near oil and gas wells.
"I don't think the study supports the conclusion that they made," Wolk said of McKenzie's leukemia claim.
McKenzie's most recent study tortures logic and reason.
Despite the headlines it inspired, the report tries to support only a 0.083 percent increase in lifetime cancer risk associated with proximity to fracking wells. To reach that little number, McKenzie could not use cancer-risk calculations established by the federal EPA or the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Instead, she borrowed standards concocted by California — a state that requires cancer warning on coffee, and alerts consumers about cancer risks associated with phones, amusement parks, parking garages, and a slate of other common activities.
Forget all the problems associated with the underwhelming findings of McKenzie's new "study." Instead, consider federal data from the Centers from Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute.
Statistics provided by those reputable institutions tell us people living near Colorado fracking wells have no reason to fear increased cancer risks. In fact, one could reasonably conclude their cancer risks are remarkably low.
More than 90 percent of Colorado's 55,000 active oil and gas wells are in Greeley and the rest of Weld County. Of the nine counties that make up the greater Denver metropolitan area, one stands out for having a lower cancer rate than the rest: Weld.
The CDC and National Cancer Institute report a Weld County Cancer rate of 379.5 for every 100,000 residents. Boulder — known for cancer-fighting diets, health food and anti-fracking politics — has a rate of 386.1. Denver's rate is 428.5. All metro-area counties exceed Weld County's cancer rate by at least 5 points, even though fracking rigs have dotted Weld County's urban neighborhoods and countryside since the early 1990s. El Paso County, with negligible oil and gas production, exceeds Weld County's cancer rate by more than 56 points.
We can have honest debates about the pros and cons of oil and gas production near population centers. In doing so, both sides should concede what all reliable data consistently prove: Fracking wells don't increase cancer risks for people who live nearby.