Oil and gas group tries to discredit Denver7 over report on benzene found in Erie boy's blood

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DENVER -- A day after Denver7 shared Elizabeth Ewaskowitz's story and her concerns about toxic levels of cancer-causing chemicals found in her 6-year-old son's blood she believes maybe linked to fracking, an oil and gas industry group wrote an article trying to discredit the woman and our report, while dozens of people emailed Denver7 to offer multiple perspectives on the health impacts of oil and gas.

So Denver7 is going 360 to show you all sides of this heated and unsettled debate over the health impacts of oil and gas.

Concerned Erie mother

The concerned woman spoke to Denver7 on Tuesday and said she paid a Lafayette doctor to conduct what's known as a VOC, or volatile organic compounds blood level test, on her son out of concern for his health given she lives within a one-mile radius of more than 150 fracking wells. The results showed her son is in the 85th percentile for benzene and two other cancer-causing chemicals.

"What it's showing for benzene, ethylbenzene, and o-xylene... how does a 6-year-old get to be in the 85th percentile for this? How? And what kind of health impact am I facing right now?" she said. 

Ewaskowitz presented those findings to state regulators on Monday at a Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) meeting and asked them to answer this question.

"If it isn't the proximity of 158 wells that are within a one-mile radius of my home and my son's school, then where would you say this level of exposure to this environmental carcinogen is coming from? Where?" she asked

Doctor provides more context

"It is not rocket science. If you're releasing toxic chemicals into the air. People, animals, and livestock are probably getting exposed to it," Dr. John Hughes explained.

Dr. Hughes treats patients near Aspen and in Lafayette. He showed Denver7 a study he conducted on VOC's in Erie and said he has conducted these blood tests on dozens of patients.

He said what is most concerning is high levels of ethylbenzene, because unlike benzene, this carcinogen rarely comes from other sources.

"There's no ethylbenzene in your gasoline, for example. There's not a lot of other industry sources out there so the only real source of that is really from natural gas operations," said Dr. Hughes.

Dr. Hughes also said chronic exposure can lead to leukemia and birth defects.

"There's really no debate there. It is solid science," he said.

Oil & Gas industry perspective

The other side took serious issue with this Erie mom's public comments and accused Denver7 of a setup. To be clear, Denver7 had no idea Ewaskowitz would be at the COGCC meeting Monday and she had no idea Denver7 planned to attend. Denver7 also verified the results of her blood test that were conducted by Genova Diagnostics through a Lafayette doctor.  

Industry groups, including Energy in Depth Mountain States, also pointed to studies conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) which found no adverse health effects.

The most recent CDPHE study was conducted in Erie in November 2017 and found "measured levels of all VOC's were well below federal or state health guideline values" and suggested a "low risk of harmful health effects."

“Just last month, we released [denverpost.com] a compilation of key health indicators and statements by Colorado’s top medical and health regulators that show no adverse health effects from oil and gas operations. Of course, it’s important to gather more information and data. But in the meantime, there are those who oppose oil and gas development and seek to link health impacts while more research is being conducted. That appears to be the case here once again," Rebecca Simons with Energy in Depth Mountain States said in a statement at the time.

But not everyone is buying that.

"In my opinion, and we all know this, the state is in bed with the oil and gas industry in quite a real way," said Dr. Hughes.

What's next

Clearly, the facts are muddied and no one side can agree about what the health impacts of fracking really are.

For this Erie mom, the VOC test is indisputable and she wants to know what's causing toxic levels in her son's blood.

"I'm a scientist who wants to be thoughtful about this and I'm a mom who's trying really hard not to panic over the blood level results I've just found for my son," said Ewaskowitz.

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