Health Effects Research

The rapid spread of oil and gas development over the past decade made possible by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has resulted in lower costs for oil and natural gas and a decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation. It has also raised public concern about impacts to public health.

Oil and gas development results in emissions of pollutants and other hazards that can affect the health of residents living near oil and gas development. Our work as part of the SRN focuses on human health impacts stemming from exposure to contaminants in air and water as well as nonchemical stressors that affect residents, such as noise, fires, and explosions.

The Public Health team of the AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network is developing methods to better understand the cumulative effect of these exposures, i.e., assessment of the cumulative risk associated with oil and gas developed. We are developing approaches that integrate multi-pathway, multi-chemical, and non-chemical exposure and risk. We have produced and published a review of potential hazards for the population at risk. We are developing estimates of the size of the population at risk statewide, with particular focus on the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin.

Above: McKenzie et al. 2016 suggests that at least 378,000 Coloradans live within one mile of an active oil and gas well.  These houses are within 350 feet of the wellpad. 


The main objectives of our work are:

  1. Define and describe the populations most likely to be impacted by unconventional oil and gas development in the DJ, Piceance and San Juan basins.
  2. Develop DJ Basin-specific residential exposure scenarios for the populations identified in the first objective, pathway-specific exposure concentration estimates, and human health risk estimates due to exposure to chemicals originating from unconventional oil and gas development.
  3. Identify DJ Basin-specific non-chemical stressors associated with unconventional oil and gas development, collect and assemble relevant data, and rank these stressors by their likelihood of affecting nearby residents as part of a cumulative risk assessment.
  4. Integrate the final cumulative risk assessment into the trans-disciplinary decision support system being developed by the network.
  5. Communicate our finding to stakeholders and risk managers and through the SRN’s outreach team.

Progress on addressing these issues will provide network researchers with a sense of the frequency and severity of risks from development and production. Better understanding of the risks will lead to recommendations for best management practices, interventions to reduce exposure, and provide information on the impacts at various setback distances between oil and gas wells and residences.